Thursday 22 March 2018

Taoiseach and British PM order urgent talks in bid to restore devolution as deadlock looms

British Prime Minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2017 Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
British Prime Minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2017 Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Brian Hutton

British Prime Minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Enda Kenny have ordered government ministers to open urgent talks with parties in Northern Ireland in an attempt to restore devolution.

After a snap election altered the face of the Stormont Assembly, abolishing for the first time the overall unionist majority, political leaders have three weeks to form an executive.

But the two main parties, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, are on a collision course over Arlene Foster's leadership.

Sinn Féin has refused to pull back from its red line that the DUP leader cannot be reinstated as first minister while an inquiry is ongoing into alleged corruption and misuse of public money in a heating scheme scandal that forced last week's snap poll.

The DUP has insisted Sinn Féin cannot dictate who they nominate to lead the party in any restored Stormont Executive.

Ms May and Mr Kenny held a 15-minute telephone conversation yesterday about the election outcome.

It is understood Britain's Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, will meet with all five main party leaders today "on a bilateral basis".

Mr Brokenshire and Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan will then meet all political parties on Wednesday "with a view to re-establishing a functioning executive as soon as possible, and to address outstanding issues".

Yesterday, Mr Brokenshire said responsibility lies on the shoulders of both the DUP and Sinn Féin.

Read more: Eilis O'Hanlon - Once again, blaming 'themmuns' for everything works in the North

He added that "confidential" talks would start immediately to resolve other outstanding issues over the full implementation of peace agreements in the North and how the legacy of the Troubles is addressed.

Mr Flanagan said it was of the utmost importance for the people of Northern Ireland that the political institutions, established under the Good Friday Agreement, promptly resume "not least so that they can effectively engage with the issues raised by Brexit".

However, Sinn Féin's John O'Dowd, education minister in a previous executive, signalled a looming deadlock. "If the DUP decides after the implementation talks that will take place over the next number of weeks that it is going to nominate Arlene Foster as joint first minister, Sinn Féin will not support that nomination," he said.

Former deputy first minister Martin McGuinness collapsed the last Assembly by resigning over Ms Foster's refusal to step aside pending an inquiry into the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme.

An inquiry into its operation is not expected to make any findings for at least six months.

The pro-Brexit DUP narrowly remained the North's largest party by just one seat as a Sinn Féin surge saw the republican party make major gains over the DUP.

Having entered the election 10 seats ahead of Sinn Féin, the DUP's advantage was slashed to a solitary seat.

Only 1,168 first preference votes separate the DUP and Sinn Féin and, for the first time, Unionists will not have an overall majority at Stormont.

Amid the fallout, Mike Nesbitt said he would resign as Ulster Unionist leader.

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said the "perpetual Unionist majority" at Stormont had been "demolished".

Irish Independent

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