Fresh Stormont talks 'more structured and intensive'
THE latest round of talks aimed at restoring devolution got under way at Stormont yesterday with assurances from the two governments of a more structured and intensive process than its failed predecessor.
A week after the deadline for nominating a first and deputy first minister passed without agreement, the parties came together for the first in series of round table meetings.
It is thought they have until the end of next week – Good Friday – to resolve their differences.
Last week, Secretary of State James Brokenshire said if there was a successful resolution by the time Westminster returned from its Easter recess in a fortnight's time, then he would move legislation to enable an administration to be formed without the need for another snap election.
He said if the talks failed then London would consider a return to direct rule.
Civil service head Malcolm McKibbin yesterday assumed the role of chair in the discussions around the formation of an executive and drafting a programme for government.
However, it is understood he will not be involved in the negotiations around legacy or the contentious issues of Irish language, a bill of rights and same-sex marriage.
The two governments have said they want to ensure regular round table meetings between the participants, an aspect of the structure that was absent in the last process. They promised "an intensive process to drive progress".
DUP leader Arlene Foster welcomed the more structured format.
"We had a good constructive meeting of the five party leaders and we are going to build on that and try to get the government up and running as soon as possible," she said.
The former first minister said it was more about a "willingness" to strike a deal than the allocated timeframe.
"There is a very short window and we need to get down and deal with the issues," she said.
Sinn Féin negotiator John O'Dowd claimed a deal could have been done last week and an executive already in place had the British government and DUP honoured previous agreements.
"Sinn Féin remain talking to the parties and the governments but we cannot have an endless round of talks to reach an new agreement while other agreements are left to gather dust on the shelf – that is not credible; that is not what the public want," he said.
"If these talks are to have any credibility, with the hope of reaching a deal, the British government and the DUP must make it clear that they will honour the agreements and the talks will move onto a programme of implementation."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the leaders' round-table meeting was a "constructive beginning" to the new phase of negotiations.
However, he said all parties needed to be closely involved in the discussions if the conditions for forming an inclusive power sharing executive were to be met.
"There's a lot of work to be done in the days ahead but gaps can be closed and a comprehensive resolution can be agreed," he said.
"All parties must be focussed on delivering a new form of government."