Wednesday 21 February 2018

UK says window to restore Northern Ireland devolution closing rapidly

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney met Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire in Dublin. Picture: PA
Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney met Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire in Dublin. Picture: PA Newsdesk Newsdesk

Northern Ireland's political parties are rapidly running out of time to restore a devolved power-sharing government, Britain's minister for the region said on Monday, as he sought to avoid a return of direct rule from London.

"The window of opportunity to restore devolution and to form an executive is closing rapidly as we move further into the autumn and with pressures in public services already evident, the need for intervention is becoming increasingly clear," James Brokenshire told a news conference.

"I don't want to have to take this action, my intent is for politicians in Northern Ireland to form an executive. I'm not going to pretend that this is easy as clear differences remain but it does remain achievable."

Party leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O'Neill claimed a deal could be done in days with the right attitude and reiterated calls for progress on a range of cultural issues.

DUP chief Arlene Foster has said the discussions should be over pretty quickly.

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire is meeting the five main parties at Stormont on Monday as he assesses the chances of a breakthrough.

Mrs O'Neill said: "There is a short window in front of us where we need to find solutions and a way forward.

"We need a short, sharp and focused negotiation in the small time frame we have ahead of us."

The DUP leader said Sinn Fein had reacted with breakneck speed to reject her suggestion that a ministerial executive at Stormont be restored alongside a parallel process dealing with cultural issues such as the Irish language.

She warned Mr Brokenshire needed to make a decision by next month on the prospect for fresh talks or direct rule from London with financial pressures looming.

Ms Foster said: "I am not going to be prescriptive but we do not believe that there can be a prolonged set of talks.

"We think we should be able to come to a determination pretty quickly whether Sinn Fein want to go back into government.

"Certainly for our part we do.

"We have no red lines - we have no barriers."

Powersharing has been in deep freeze since early this year when the late Sinn Fein deputy first minister Mr McGuinness resigned in protest at the DUP's handling of a botched green energy scheme which risks landing the taxpayer in millions of pounds of debt.

Mrs Foster said by October the Northern Ireland Secretary would have to pass a law authorising the expenditure of public money, adding: "If there is no devolution by that stage and no signal of devolution I think that he would have to take action in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland."

Mr Brokenshire holds discussions with the Ulster and the Democratic Unionists, nationalist SDLP, cross-community Alliance Party and Sinn Fein on Monday on whether to initiate another round of talks.

It has been seven months since devolved ministers last took decisions with negotiations paused over the summer.

Outstanding issues in dispute between the parties include legal protection for the Irish language and dealing with violence from Northern Ireland's past.

Mrs Foster has called for a "common sense" solution appointing Stormont ministers alongside a time-limited process for making progress on the red line issue of an Irish language act and Ulster Scots.

Her republican counterpart said: "What she did was go away and call for something which she knew would be rejected."

She said it had been turned down in March.

"It was put out knowing what the outcome would be and what the response would be."

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said direct rule was not inevitable.

"It is critical that we have power-sharing and devolution here in Northern Ireland, both in terms of government as well as reconciliation projects.

There does seem to be a dearth of creativity in terms of ideas of how we can get through this current impasse and avoid direct rule.

"Today, we are asking the secretary of state and the Irish government to reconsider the appointment of a mediator to facilitate the current talks process."

He added: "We see a situation where the DUP and Sinn Fein cannot talk directly to one another, they're engaged in megaphone diplomacy.

"That's not a good way in terms of pursuing negotiations."


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