Sunday 26 January 2020

Taoiseach believes there is 'real chance' Northern Ireland Assembly could be back today

  • UK and Irish governments jointly published suggested deal
  • Mary Lou McDonald: 'We will give the text careful consideration'
  • Tanaiste said the deal was 'filled with compromises'
  • Ard Chomhairle will meet in Belfast around lunchtime

Irish Foreign Affairs minister Simon Coveney (left) and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Julian Smith, issue a statement outside Stormont Parliament buildings in Belfast, where meetings with parties involved in talks to resurrect the devolved government in Northern Ireland have been taking place. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Irish Foreign Affairs minister Simon Coveney (left) and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Julian Smith, issue a statement outside Stormont Parliament buildings in Belfast, where meetings with parties involved in talks to resurrect the devolved government in Northern Ireland have been taking place. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
DUP leader Arlene Foster. Picture: PA

Hugh O'Connell, Suzanne Breen and David Young

TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar has urged all parties to sign up to a new agreement to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.

Mr Varadkar was speaking after the Irish and British governments last night published proposals to break the three-year deadlock at Stormont.

Crucially the DUP has signalled its willingness to sign up to the deal but Sinn Féin is meeting on Friday to discuss the proposals with fresh Assembly elections to be called by the Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith on Monday if the deal is not agreed to.

Speaking at a special Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting in Dublin today, Mr Varadkar urged all parties to "come on board" and sign up to the deal. He said it was a "very sensitive stage" in the process and that he spoke with Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald this morning as well as the leaders of the SDLP and Alliance Party in recent days.

"I think there's a real chance that today or if not, by Monday, we can have the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive back up and running again," he said.

"I've always felt that there would be a window of opportunity between the British election and their decision to ratify the withdrawal agreement, and the 13th of January to get those institutions up and running again.

"I think this is the opportunity. I'd really appeal to all of the parties now to sign up to the agreement, to come on board, to have the Assembly meeting again, to have the Executive up and running and crucially to have the North-South Ministerial Council (NSMC) operating again."

Mr Varadkar said re-establishing the NSMC would allow ministers on both sides of the border to press ahead with plans for a number of all-island infrastructure projects and more cooperation on Health.

He identified projects including the A5 road to Derry and Letterkenny; the Ulster Canal; cross-border greenways; upgrading Dublin-Belfast train line; and building a university in Derry to link up with Letterkenny IT.

"That opportunity is now there for us to seize. This government is up for it, the Irish government is up for it and the British government is too and I'd really appeal to all of the parties now to come on board and let's get working again," Mr Varadkar adde

The suggested deal came as Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith wrote to the speaker of the defunct Assembly requesting him to convene a sitting on Friday - so issuing a challenge to the parties to turn up and get back to business.

The DUP, the party blamed by both governments for holding up a deal in December, responded positively to the 'New Decade, New Approach' text published by the governments.

Party leader Arlene Foster said there was a basis to re-establish the devolved institutions in a "fair and balanced way".

Ms Foster said the deal recognised there were people in Northern Ireland with an Irish identity and those with a British identity.

She said it offered an "entirely different construct" to Irish language legislation that had been proposed previously.

"This is a deal that recognises that we live in a shared society, this is a deal that recognises that no one identity should be placed over another," she told BBC Radio Ulster.

Ms Foster added: "We are ready to go back into the Assembly.

"I'm not sure other parties are, but we will see where we are during the course of the day.

"I very much hope that the Assembly can meet as quickly as possible so that we can get back to do what we need to do and, indeed, get Northern Ireland moving again."

Ms Foster said there was a need for the government to be "generous" in respect of financial support that accompanied the deal.

She said she had spoken to Sinn Fein's Stormont leader about the deal and expressed hope that the Assembly sitting would go ahead.

"I spoke to Michelle last evening," she said.

"Of course, they will have to go through their own internal discussions and I respect that - I had to go through my internal discussions and, indeed, those discussions will continue during the day, and hopefully we can get to a place where we can have the executive up and running again."

All eyes will now turn to Sinn Fein - the other party whose agreement is required to secure the return of a mandatory coalition executive.

The republican party has called a meeting of its ruling council to deliberate on the proposals to resolve long running wrangles on issues such as legislative protections for Irish language speakers.

It is understood the Ard Chomhairle (ruling council) will meet in Belfast around lunchtime.

The national officer board will meet in the morning and subsequently make a recommendation to the Ard Chomhairle members to either accept or reject the deal.

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said: "We are studying the text and will give it careful consideration."

The events will all play out as workers in Northern Ireland's crisis-hit health service stage another day of mass strike action over pay and staffing shortages.

With the UK government promising major financial support if devolution returns, Mr Smith said he had received assurances from trade union leaders that if the parties re-enter government they will call off the action.

Despite the secretary of state's request, the Assembly authorities - in a post-midnight statement - made clear Speaker Robin Newton could only convene a sitting if the main parties indicated they had agreed a deal to form a new ministerial executive.

"The speed and timing of any sitting therefore depends entirely on when the Speaker hears positively from the parties," said an Assembly spokeswoman.

The last DUP/Sinn Fein-led coalition government collapsed in January 2017 over a row about a botched green energy scheme.

That dispute subsequently widened to take in more traditional wrangles on matters such as the Irish language and the thorny legacy of the Troubles.

"Now is decision time," Mr Smith said as he stood in front of Parliament Buildings on Thursday night.

"We have had three years of talks, finally there is good deal on the table that all parties can support and on that basis I have tonight written to the speaker of this Assembly and asked him to recall it tomorrow to enable the restoration of the executive before the weekend.

"I urge all parties to come here tomorrow and serve the people of Northern Ireland."

Tanaiste Simon Coveney said the deal was "filled with compromises".

Mr Coveney said the people needed to tell their MLAs to take the opportunity and seal the deal.

"It's now time their politicians stepped up and fully represented their constituents," he said.

"It's time to show leadership and get back to powersharing in Stormont."

The deal represents the governments' joint assessment of how long-standing wrangles can be resolved.

The document includes:

  • A new office for identity and cultural expression will promote diversity and inclusion.
  • Commissioners will protect the Irish and Ulster Scots languages which are cherished by Sinn Fein and the DUP.
  • The long impasse on the Irish language issue revolved around whether provisions would be enacted as a stand-alone piece of legislation or as part of a broader piece of legislation. The governments have proposed to do it by amending the 1998 Northern Ireland Act with three separate bills - one specifically dedicated to provisions for the Irish language.
  • Reform of the petition of concern voting mechanism, which was originally designed to protect minority rights in Assembly votes.
  • Improvements in how civil servants, special advisers and ministers conduct themselves following the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal which led to the Assembly collapse.
  • More time to appoint a replacement if a Stormont First or Deputy First Minister resigns, as Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness did three years ago, bringing down the institutions.

Reacting to the publication, Ms Foster said: "On balance we believe there is a basis upon which the Assembly and Executive can (be) re-established in a fair and balanced way."

She added: "This is not a perfect deal and there are elements within it which we recognise are the product of long negotiations and represent compromise outcomes.

"There will always need to be give and take."

Mr Smith said the parties realised they had reached a critical juncture.

"We have got one chance to get this right and I am under no doubt that everyone realises that this chance is now," he said.

Mr Coveney said the deal was not about winning or losing.

"I want to urge all political leaders and their teams to grab this opportunity and get back to work in a multi-party executive," he said.

"Forget the language of win or lose - this is a deal filed with compromises.

"They are fair compromises but, most importantly, they are compromises in the interests of all of the people in Northern Ireland."

Mr Coveney said there was no such thing as a "perfect deal" and political leaders had a choice - whether to meet the proposals with generosity or negativity.

The parties had been working to a Monday deadline to restore the institutions.

On Monday, legislation to give civil servants extra powers to run the region's troubled public services expires and the UK Government assumes a legal duty to call a fresh Assembly election.

Irish Independent

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