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James Brokenshire: I will fast-track laws if Stormont deal is reached

Secretary of State James Brokenshire, Picture by Mal McCann.
John Manley and digital staff

James Brokenshire will fast-track laws through parliament by early May if a deal can be reached, the Northern Ireland secretary has said. 

Despite the announcement of a snap general election yesterday by Prime Minister Theresa May, there will be no change in the Stormont's talks process, Mr Brokenshire claimed. 

He said: “I believe it is also right to introduce provisions that would enable an Executive to be formed in early May should agreement be reached.

“To have this legislation in force in time, I will be requesting that its progress through Parliament be fast-tracked.”

Concerns were voiced yesterday that the prospects of Stormont's institutions being restored in the coming weeks had taken a hit with Mrs May's announcement of a June 8 general election.

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan said he was concerned that the snap poll would see efforts to form an executive derailed as the parties moved to campaign mode, while SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the prime minister's rush to call an election reflected the "disdain" she held for Northern Ireland .

The third phase of the post-election Stormont talks are due to get underway today.

But yesterday's shock announcement has thrown the whole process up in the air.

It remains possible that Secretary of State James Brokenshire may call an assembly election to coincide with June 8's Westminster poll. However, it has been suggested that because Westminster's 'first past the post' method differs from Stormont's proportional representation, it would be ill-advised to run the two polls side-by-side.

The Irish News attempted to contact the Northern Ireland Office to discuss the options but nobody was available.

Speaking at Westminster, Mr Brokenshire said discussions between the parties and the two governments would continue and that the forthcoming election did not change that approach.

Mr Brokenshire will also introduce legislation to address the north's immediate 'housekeeping' requirements, including setting a regional taxation rate to allow rates bills to be issued by councils.

While the prospects for an agreement at Stormont were slim, many believe the election will only exacerbate differences between the parties and make a deal more difficult.

After speaking to Mr Brokenshire yesterday, Mr Flanagan said the parties' priorities would change in the coming weeks.

"I am conscious of the political reality that all of the parties involved in the talks will now be competing in a general election and mindsets will inevitably shift to campaign mode," the minister said.

Mr Flanagan said Dublin was hopeful the the talks would continue and conclude successfully.

"The interests of the people of Northern Ireland are best served by having a devolved executive and assembly," he said.

"This is the case regardless of the electoral cycle at Westminster."

Taoiseach Enda Kenny was one of a number of world leaders that Mrs May spoke to on the phone following her announcement.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said the forthcoming election provided the region with an opportunity to "vote for the union".

"The DUP has been a strong voice for Northern Ireland at Westminster and we have used the mandate given to us to ensure the interests of Northern Ireland are to the fore," she said.

Sinn Féin northern leader Michelle O’Neill said the election was an opportunity for voters to oppose Brexit and "reject Tory cuts".

"It is an opportunity to progress designated status for the north within the EU and for a future based on equality, respect, integrity and unity," she said.

SDLP leader Colum Easwood said the election provided an opportunity to strengthen the mandate of parties which campaigned against against Brexit at Westminster.

"It tells you all you need to know about Theresa May that she would call a snap Westminster election in the middle of intense efforts to restore power sharing government to Northern Ireland," he said.

"From the beginning of her tenure as British prime minister she has shown very little but disinterest and disdain for this place."

Alliance leader Naomi Long said it would be "disgraceful" for any party to use the election to stall or withdraw from the Stormont talks process. However she conceded the chances of a deal were "remote".

"This election coincides with a critical time in our local politics – the current vacuum is not sustainable, it is already doing massive damage to our economy and our public services," she said.

"It would be disgraceful for any party to use this election and the hope of short-term electoral gain to stall or withdraw the current talks process."

UUP leader Robin Swann said: "This election will be about strengthening the hand of the United Kingdom in forthcoming Brexit negotiations.

"Northern Ireland needs strong representation in Westminster now more than ever, arguing the best case for Northern Ireland."

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