Monday 24 July 2017

Sinn Féin split on new talks to avoid election

Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy (left), Michelle O’Neill and Gerry Kelly speak to the media at Stormont yesterday. Photo: Reuters
Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy (left), Michelle O’Neill and Gerry Kelly speak to the media at Stormont yesterday. Photo: Reuters
John Downing

John Downing

Sinn Féin is divided about whether to enter new talks - or allow the inevitable collapse of the fragile Belfast power-sharing administration.

As the Dublin and London governments moved to avoid a collapse in the North's Executive, confusion emerged about whether Sinn Féin would re-engage in talks with the DUP - or just allow the apparent drift towards elections later next month.

Sinn Féin Health Minister Michelle O'Neill - echoing comments by deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald - said the party was "not interested" in last-minute rescue talks.

But party president Gerry Adams said he and his comrades were "always open for talks".

Party sources played down the potential for conflict.

Read more: Enda Kenny urges Sinn Fein and DUP to find a last minute solution

Others suggested meaningful talks were unlikely to emerge from the current stalemate.

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan is due in Belfast today for talks aimed at avoiding an election which he said will add to dangerous community divisions.

Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire, met politicians in Belfast in a last-ditch bid to avert an election, just months after a poll last summer.

But sources in all the groups signalled an election appears to be a certainty - most probably in late February or late March.

If Sinn Féin refuses to replace Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister by Monday, then Mr Brokenshire must under law call an election.

The confusion within Sinn Féin emerged from Ms O'Neill's negative comments, which clashed with a more upbeat call from Mr Adams. But later Ms O'Neill tried to clarify the party position, while still remaining downbeat.

"Sinn Féin is always open to talks. We are the party of dialogue, I see no basis for credible negotiations this side of the election," Ms O'Neill said.

Despite the profoundly negative turn in events on Monday, DUP leader Arlene Foster strongly hinted she would be open to talks with Sinn Féin.

But Mr Brokenshire said an election was a "high probability". He pledged, however, to keep seeking a resolution until all hope was gone.

Read more: 'North is facing brutal election, direct rule from London' - Foster

"My focus is on the here and now, on what can be achieved now...what the potential may be to bring people together, rather than see people be driven further apart," he said.

The latest twists in a week of high drama at Stormont came as British Prime Minister Theresa May made clear in the Commons that events in Belfast would not derail the UK government's timetable for leaving the EU.

Mrs May rejected a challenge from Scottish National Party MP Angus Robertson to postpone the start of EU withdrawal talks under Article 50 because, he argued, Northern Ireland would be left without a voice in the process.

The collapse of the institutions was triggered by the resignation of Mr McGuinness on Monday.

Read more: Bertie Ahern: Everyone needs to take a deep breath - North badly needs cooling-off period or this crisis will spiral

The Sinn Féin veteran's move, in protest at the DUP's handling of the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), forced Mrs Foster from her post as first minister.

Collapse

The North faces the prospect of direct rule from Westminster being reintroduced if the fallout between the DUP and Sinn Féin cannot be resolved on the other side of an election.

While the looming collapse of power sharing was triggered by the 'cash-for-ash' affair - a scandal that has left Stormont with a £490m (€563m) bill - other disputes between the two main parties have been reignited by the furore.

Irish Independent

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