Stormont talks set to intensify next week
THE two governments are expected to ramp up the talks aimed at restoring devolution next week with Tanáiste Simon Coveney saying he'd like the process concluded by the end of June.
The Fine Gael deputy leader was speaking after he and Secretary of State Karen Bradley met the leaders of Stormont's five main parties yesterday to assess the prospects for forging agreement in the coming weeks.
Mr Coveney and Mrs Bradley are expected to recommend to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British Prime Minister Theresa May, respectively, that the latest negotiations move to what the secretary of state described as a "very intensive period".
Speaking at Stormont, the tanáiste said there was "momentum" in the current process, which began at the start of this month.
"Certainly my recommendation to the taoiseach will be that we should now intensify the discussions, make them much more direct and much more political for the next couple of weeks in an effort to try to turn what has been a good process into a series of decisions that can get a basis for the re-establishment of an executive - that's ultimately what we are about," he said.
"I think all the parties are up for that and I think certainly that was the indication today and there was some good blunt discussion, I think, around that because there needs to be an appetite here within the parties to make this work, because it's going to involve compromise and it's going to involve accommodation with each other."
Mr Coveney conceded there were "awkward issues" to resolve but added that they were "not insurmountable".
He acknowledged that events at Westminster and Theresa May's impending departure could impact on the process.
"We are not likely to have a new Conservative Party leader and new prime minister probably until the end of July," he said.
"We are looking to get this process done in June."
The tanáiste said there was no place for "winners and losers" in the talks' outcome.
Mrs Bradley, who made a short statement but declined to take questions from the media, thanked the parties for their "positive engagement".
"I am positive that there is the right attitude and there is the right will there, but I think it would be wrong for me to do anything other than to be clear that there are still significant challenges that still remain," she said.
"We will continue to work to deliver what the people of Northern Ireland rightly want and deserve and need, which is government in Stormont."
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the process required a "step change" in engagement between the parties and the two governments.
She said any restored institutions needed to ensure "agreements that are made are agreements that are delivered".
"The truth is it's broken promises that have delivered broken politics and we need to fix that and we believe that we can," she said.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said agreement was possible and that her party was looking forward to engaging during an intense period of negotiation.
"I think the window is quite short because once we get to the summer we know that other pressures will come to bear so therefore we are up for trying to work intensively to try to find a way forward," she said.
SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon cautioned that the "difficult issues" still remained unresolved.
"It is very clear, anyone who went round the doors over the last two elections will know, that the people of Northern Ireland right across the north want their politicians back to work," she said.
"We are committing to doing that, that is our priority and it will remain our priority as we enter this next phase of negotiations."
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said the "mood music" around the table was a lot better than he expected.
"There were no red lines thrown out around the table, it was about how we get to the next step and what the next step actually looks like," he said.
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said the working groups had made some progress "stress testing" proposals.
"But I think all of us recognise that at this stage we need to move on to a different stage in this process where it's actual direct negotiations with the party leaderships," she said.
"We are hoping that will be the case next week."