Monday 24 July 2017

Talks between DUP and Conservatives 'are a distraction' from restoring Northern Ireland Assembly

Simon Coveney
Simon Coveney
Colm Kelpie

Colm Kelpie

Talks between the DUP and the Conservatives in the UK are a distraction from getting the Assembly in Northern Ireland back up and running, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has said.

Speaking to Independent.ie, Mr Coveney warned that there was no legal mechanism to extend the June 29 deadline for restoring powersharing without legislation, nor was there any appetite for it in Westminster.

Mr Coveney is in Belfast today for talks between the parties in Northern Ireland.

“I can pretend and be politically correct about it, but it is a distraction,” Mr Coveney said.

“To be fair to the [other] parties, they are being quite mature about it. They will say to me and to each other, how can you expect us to sign off on a programme for government, as a basis to set up an Assembly and an Executive, until we can see the detail of this arrangement?  If it is going to change the amount of money that is available for healthcare or for infrastructure, that has to be factored into the programme for government. You can’t expect people to sign up in the dark if this is going to change things.”

The DUP and Sinn Fein have until next Thursday to reach a deal to return to devolved government together in the Stormont Assembly.

Northern Ireland politics has been in crisis since Sinn Fein pulled out of government in January, prompting an election in March. Talks were paused until after the General Election in the UK on June 8, and have since been overshadowed by talks between the DUP and Conservatives on facilitating Theresa May's government.

Mr Coveney said Arlene Foster had reassured him “over and over again", that any deal DUP/Tory deal will not compromise the Good Friday Agreement, or the peace process, on issues that would be regarded as potentially providing favouritism to one party.

“We have to take their assurances at face value,” Mr Coveney said, adding that there has also been a commitment that once a deal between the DUP and Conservatives is reached, it will be published.

“From my point of view, the sooner that happens the better. That is impacting on our ability to finalising a deal on the Assembly. I think all parties, including the DUP, are all trying to be reassuring and helpful on this issue of that negotiation.

“As a government in Dublin, we’re a little concerned about it too. I take the reassurance that I’ve got from Arlene, and [Taoiseach] Leo [Varadkar] accepts the reassurance that he’s got from Prime Minister May. Let’s see that deal, and let’s try and get it done sooner rather than later.”

The minister said the June 29 deadline has to be met.

“If it’s not up and running by the 29th, then we have a real problem. Because, there is no legal mechanism available to extend without new legislation. There is no mechanism to introduce direct rule without legislation, and the Irish Government would be fundamentally opposed to that.”

The minister said the only option available to the Secretary of State is to name the date for another election.

“The view that’s being expressed to me quite clearly is that there would be no appetite in Westminster to pass legislation to extend the deadline further," Mr Coveney said.

The minister said progress is being made, and the parties want to get it done.

Progress on the Irish language issue, thought to be the main stumbling block, is being made, it is understood.

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