Wednesday 17 January 2018

First round of renewed talks to restore power-sharing in Stormont 'constructive'

DUP leader Arlene Foster arrives to speak to the media at Stormont yesterday, with DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
DUP leader Arlene Foster arrives to speak to the media at Stormont yesterday, with DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

David Young

A first round table meeting of Stormont leaders since the implosion of power-sharing was a constructive exchange, Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster has said.

Plenary discussions between the five main leaders did not happen during last month's ill-fated negotiations, primarily due to Sinn Fein resistance to Secretary of State James Brokenshire taking the chair.

The round table in Stormont Castle on the first day of a fresh talks process was chaired by the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service Sir Malcolm McKibbin.

"We had a good constructive meeting of the five party leaders and we are going to build on that and try to get the government up and running as soon as possible," said former first minister Mrs Foster.

Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill and DUP leader Arlene Foster (right). Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill and DUP leader Arlene Foster (right). Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

She welcomed the fact the talks were "more structured" than March's failed discussions and signalled a deal to save power-sharing was possible.

"We don't believe it is a matter of time, it's whether there is a willingness there to deal with the issues and to get the government formed again," she said.

"There is a very short window and we need to get down and deal with the issues."

Stormont parties missed last week's deadline for forming an executive after negotiations broke down and Sinn Fein said it would not nominate a deputy first minister.

Political leaders were subsequently invited by Mr Brokenshire to participate in a fresh round of talks in a bid to break the deadlock.

Two of the main stumbling blocks to a successful outcome are the divisive issues of Irish language and how to deal with the toxic legacy of the Troubles.

After the first day of engagements, Sinn Fein negotiator John O'Dowd said his party's position had not changed.

Sinn Fein has insisted the logjam centres around non-implementation of previous political agreements.

The legacy mechanisms were outlined in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement while an Irish language act was envisaged in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.

"If we can succeed in the implementation of previous agreements then we can move forward towards the establishment of an executive, to the rebuilding of this place in terms of public confidence," said Mr O'Dowd.

Asked if Sinn Fein was prepared to compromise, Mr O'Dowd said past agreements represented compromise.

"You can't compromise on a compromise," he added.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood struck a positive note about the new process, insisting the opening day was a "step in the right direction".

"The meeting of the five party leaders this afternoon was a constructive beginning to the new phase of the talks," he said.

"It's critical that all parties are at the table if we're to create the conditions for forming an inclusive power-sharing Executive."

Ulster Unionist negotiator Tom Elliott said his party wanted to make the process work but warned he and his colleagues would not be "taken for granted".

In terms of implementation of previous agreements, he said Sinn Fein had not respected the 1998 Good Friday Agreement position that Northern Ireland should remain within the UK unless a majority of its citizens decided otherwise.

He said progress was "limited" but the last few days might deliver results.

"The chances of success are possible indeed they could be probable if people want to show some respect for each other and stop drawing red lines and have proper negotiations," he said.

Devolution crashed in January over a row about a botched green energy scheme.

The subsequent snap Assembly election campaign laid bare a series of other disputes between the main two parties - the DUP and Sinn Fein.

The parties missed the three-week post-election deadline to form a new coalition administration last Monday.

While the Government is statutorily obliged to call another snap election if such a deadline is missed, Mr Brokenshire has said he believes there is no public appetite to go back to the polls.

He has said if an agreement is reached he will move to amend legislation to allow an executive to be formed without the need for an election.

If no deal materialises he has made clear the Government will countenance the reintroduction of direct rule from London - a step that would also require emergency legislation to be passed.

Mr Brokenshire has signalled April 18 as an effective deadline for progress to be made.

The lack of ruling executive, and agreed budget, at the start of the financial year has forced a senior civil servant to take control of Stormont's finances.

David Sterling, the permanent secretary at the Department of Finance, is using emergency powers to release cash and resources to departments to keep public services operating amid the crisis.

Last month's election was triggered after the late Martin McGuinness quit as Sinn Fein deputy first minister in protest against the DUP's handling of the error-ridden Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

The March 2 poll returned an Assembly shorn of an overall unionist majority for the first time ever, with the DUP's lead over Sinn Fein cut from 10 seats to just one.

On top of legacy and language, another logjam preventing the formation of a new government is Sinn Fein's insistence that it will not accept Mrs Foster as first minister until the conclusion of a public inquiry into the RHI scandal.

Press Association

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