Monday 23 September 2019

Stormont talks collapse: May and Varadkar's visit on Monday a 'distraction', says DUP negotiator

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said: "Power sharing and working together are the only way forward for Northern Ireland"

DUP's Arlene Foster speaking to the media at Stormont Parliament buildings Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
DUP's Arlene Foster speaking to the media at Stormont Parliament buildings Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire Newsdesk Newsdesk

DUP leader Arlene Foster has announced that there is "no prospect" of a return to devolved government at Stormont.

In a statement, Mrs Foster said: “For almost four weeks, we have been engaged in intensive negotiations with Sinn Fein. We have attempted to find a stable and sustainable basis for restoring devolution. Those discussions have been unsuccessful.

“Despite our best efforts, serious and significant gaps remain between ourselves and Sinn Fein especially on the issue of the Irish language.

“I have made it consistently clear that unionists will not countenance a stand alone or free standing Irish Language Act. Sinn Fein’s insistence on a stand alone Irish Language Act means that we have reached an impasse.

“As far back as last summer, I outlined my party’s willingness to reach an accommodation on language and cultural issues. However, I indicated that any such accommodation must be fair, balanced and capable of commanding support on all sides of our community.  At the moment, we do not have a fair and balanced package.

“After the Assembly election, I embarked on an engagement exercise with those who love and cherish the Irish language. I respect the Irish language and those who speak it but in a shared society this cannot be a one-way street.  Respect for the unionist and British identity has not been reciprocated.

“In our view, there is no current prospect of these discussions leading to an Executive being formed.

“It is now incumbent upon Her Majesty’s Government to set a budget and start making policy decisions about our schools, hospitals and infrastructure.  Important decisions impacting on everyone in Northern Ireland have been sitting in limbo for too long.  I had dearly hoped that we could have restored an Executive and local Ministers could have taken those decisions.  That is not possible at this time.  Northern Ireland is best governed by local Ministers who are accountable to local people.

“Restoring a sustainable and fully functioning devolved government will remain our goal but we will not accept a one-sided deal.

“Any agreement to restore the Executive must be on a sensible basis. We cannot and will not be held to ransom by those who have refused to form an Executive for over thirteen months.”

In a statement Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said: "I very much regret the statement from the DUP. Power sharing and working together are the only way forward for Northern Ireland. The Tanaiste and the Secretary of State are in close contact and we will continue to confer with the British Government about the next steps."

Meanwhile, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood expressed anger and disappointment at the statement.

He said: "We have to get back to working together. We have to not allow this moment to be the destruction of all that we have achieved."

He said: "Equally we can't allow this British government or this DUP to think that they are going to govern Northern Ireland on their own. That cannot be allowed to happen.

"The spirit which underpins the Good Friday Agreement is one that recognises we have two communities here, two nationalities, two sets of allegiances and we have to have that recognised in anything that goes after this."

Mr Eastwood said they would be making it clear to "anyone who will listen" that it could not be the "DUP having the whip hand".

The SDLP leader warned that if the institutions fall, it would be "very, very difficult" to get them back up and running.

"It's easy to pull this place down. It's not that easy to put it back together again."

He was also hugely critical of the British government's handling of the political crisis.

Mr Eastwood added: "They have allowed two parties to have complete cover, to have complete control over this process, they have not involved anybody else, it hasn't been transparent.

DUP negotiator Simon Hamilton said Theresa May's visit to Belfast on Monday was unhelpful and a "distraction" from the now-collapsed powersharing talks.

He told reporters: "I think the visit of the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach acted as a bit of a distraction at the beginning of the week, I don't think it was entirely helpful in getting us to reach a successful conclusion but regardless of the intervention, unsuccessful as it was of both prime ministers, significant and serious gaps remain between ourselves and Sinn Fein."

Asked if the DUP asked Mrs May not to go to Belfast at such a sensitive stage in talks and why she ignored the advice, Mr Hamilton said: "I am sure as all prime ministers get advice from time to time and they can take that advice or they can ignore that advice.

"Certainly in our view it acted as a distraction, we were unable to build on the progress that we had been making at the end of last week, and I think we have, as I have said before, run out of road in respect of this process."

Tánaiste Simon Coveney has this evening described the announcement from the DUP as "very disappointing".

He has held phone talks with Secretary of State Karen Bradley and briefed the Taoiseach on developments.

"As co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, the UK and Irish governments have an obligation to uphold and protect the letter and spirit of that Agreement. We will need to reflect in the coming days on how best to do that," he said.

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said: "We are in a very precarious position at this point in time, essentially in uncharted territory.

"We have now no prospect of a deal but also no process in place that could lead to a deal nor do we have any indication of willingness by parties to continue any such process."

She said political investment in devolution had been "swept away" over the most "minor of differences".

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann called for further clarity.

He said: "We need to know and what Northern Ireland clearly needs to know, is the door to devolution now firmly closed or is there still a possibility of it being open?"

And, if Westminster had to impose a budget then go ahead, he added.

"If Her Majesty's government needs to bring in a budget now, let them do it," said Mr Swann.

"They have done it before. So if they need to run a budget so be it, let's get on with it and let's do what we can to get Northern Ireland back up and running again."

Speaking on the collapse, Labour leader Brendan Howlin said:

“Not for the first time in the last year attempts to reinstate the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement have failed because one side fears that their base will not tolerate a concession to the other side.

"In this case it appears to be the DUP, last year it was Sinn Féin.

"The Taoiseach, having oversold his deal in December and having travelled to Northern Ireland to cut the ribbon on a new deal, is looking increasingly out of touch."

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