DUP and Sinn Féin set for talks amid accusation of Lyra betrayal
North's leaders bicker on airwaves despite a new mood of hope after the funeral of young reporter
Northern Ireland’s politicians are to finally hold talks about working together amid accusations they are betraying Lyra McKee’s legacy.
The leaders of the DUP and Sinn Féin spent the 24 hours after the young journalist’s memorial service slinging insults across the airwaves.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said she would not “capitulate” on her key demands for power-sharing, while the DUP’s Arlene Foster claimed her rivals were looking for “a 5-0 victory”.
Behind the scenes, the British and Irish governments are working desperately to open a line of civil communication between the two parties.
Sources said trust levels were very low and a major breakthrough was not imminent.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said the attitude being adopted by Sinn Féin was “unforgivable”.
“It is increasingly clear that the public want the return of working politics, but Mary Lou McDonald’s performance demonstrates that the needs of the public continue to be secondary to the political strategy and internal direction of the Sinn Féin organisation,” he told the Irish Independent.
Pressed yesterday as to whether Sinn Féin was willing to compromise on the issue of a standalone Irish act in a bid to resolve the impasse, Ms McDonald replied: “If you’re asking me are we going to capitulate on behalf of citizens in the North to people who wish to hold back progress in every form, to people who do not wish to make room for others in an open democratic society, then the answer to that is no. We will not capitulate on that.”
Ms Foster replied by suggesting schools and hospitals are more important than the Irish language.
It is now more than 800 days since Stormont has functioned but there were hopes the words of Fr Martin Magill at the funeral of Ms McKee on Wednesday would spark the politicians into action after many months without serious consultations.
Fr Magill's plea for the leaders to get back to work has made headlines around the world, including in the US and Australia.
Addressing the leaders, he asked: "Why in God's name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life in front of her to get us to this point?"
Both the Sinn Féin and DUP said yesterday they want to get the Assembly back up and running - but neither budged an inch from their entrenched positions.
Sinn Féin is demanding an Irish language act and new equality laws.
The DUP, which opposes a standalone Irish act and same-sex marriage, says these issues should be discussed in a forum outside of the Assembly.
Ms McDonald said the cleric's message "hit the nail on the head".
"He articulated in the clearest and most uncompromising way the fact that politicians, myself included, need to roll up our sleeves and we need to get cracking," she said.
However, the Dublin Central TD repeatedly refused to give any ground on the red lines being set down by her party for a return to power-sharing.
"There is nothing trivial in a society that's has been fractured by conflict, in a society where we need sustainable power-sharing, there's nothing trivial at all on insisting on equality and rights for every citizen," she said.
"We stand by the Good Friday Agreement and we are not going to resile from that position," she said.
Ms Foster accused her counterpart of putting Sinn Féin demands "above the demands of the people of Northern Ireland".
"They are demands for a better healthcare system, they want their schools reformed, they want their infrastructure done," she said.
Amid the unseemly conflict, pressure has mounted on the two women from other political parties on the island.
Tánaiste Simon Coveney and the British Secretary of State for the North Karen Bradley have been in frequent contact with key figures since the memorial service.
Despite concerns about the public disagreements, they will travel to Belfast this afternoon to finalise details for exploratory talks.
The situation is further complicated by the fact local elections take place in Northern Ireland next Thursday.
Any discussions involving all of the North's parties will not commence until after polling.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin told the Irish Independent that Sinn Féin's reasons for collapsing the Assembly in January 2017 were "bogus".
"Difficulties should be dealt with by a parliament, not by collapsing that parliament and creating a political vacuum," he said.
"In addition, the fact that the North has been without any political leadership or representation during the Brexit crisis is unforgivable."
The Labour Party has now put forward the idea of copying the Citizens' Assembly model used in the Republic as a way of having marriage, language and abortion rights debated in the North.
Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin said a "silent majority" in Northern Ireland wanted to liberalise social laws.
"One solution would be to allow the voices of the silent majority to be heard.
"Citizens' assemblies are democratic," he said.
"They have worked around the world, by giving a random selection of citizens the time and access to expertise to discuss and reflect on complex issues before making recommendations."
Mr Howlin said it was now "time for elected members [of Stormont] to turn up".