Political news

Stormont talks suspended until after Easter

Stormont talks have been suspended. Picture by Hugh Russell
Deborah McAleese and David Young, Press Association

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire has warned of a snap election or a return to direct rule if Stormont parties fail to form a government by early May.

Mr Brokenshire issued the ultimatum as he confirmed the current round of talks to restore powersharing would be suspended for Easter.

"I believe that the outstanding issues between the parties are surmountable, but if no executive is formed by early May, I will need to take further steps to ensure Northern Ireland has the political stability it needs.

"This is likely to mean, however undesirable, either a second election or a return to decision making from Westminster."

 

A deal between the parties at Stormont has yet to be struck, almost six weeks after an Assembly election.

Party leaders say the talks have been constructive but there has been little progress on key points such as an Irish Language Act and legacy issues.

The DUP and Sinn Féin have blamed each other for the stalemate.

Parties had until Friday to resolve their differences, but that has been extended.

A date has yet to be set for the resumption of talks after the break.

The political deadlock came after a snap election on March 2 brought an end to Stormont's unionist majority and the DUP's lead over Sinn Féin was cut from 10 seats to one.

Sinn Féin and the DUP, whose agreement is a prerequisite of forming a new administration, are at loggerheads over a range of issues, each blaming the other for the impasse.

Mr Brokenshire said round-table talks would be suspended over Easter but bilateral meetings would continue.

"All the parties have been actively engaged and some further progress has been made, including on the formation of an executive and on legacy," he said.

"There is, however, still a lack of agreement between the parties on a small but significant number of issues.

"The restoration of devolved government remains achievable, but more time and a more focused engagement on the critical issues are required.

"The parties will have a final opportunity after Easter to reach agreement, building on the discussions which have taken place over the past six weeks."

He confirmed he would commence legislative steps at Westminster to stabilise the finances of the rudderless administration, by passing a law to enable the circulation of rates bills that pay for local council services.

He said he would also amend legislation to allow an executive to be formed in early May if a deal materialises.

If no consensus is reached, he said the British Government would either call another snap election or suspend devolution and reinstate direct rule from London.

"On 2 March the people of Northern Ireland voted clearly for devolved government," he said.

"The parties mandated by that election still have a duty to provide the government for which they campaigned."

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams reiterated his view that progress could only be made if the DUP signed up to "rights-based" institutions.

As well as an Irish language act and a commitment from the DUP not to block same-sex marriage, his party wants to see a Bill of Rights as outlined in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the re-establishment of a forum to allow civic society to contribute to the political process.

"Sinn Féin are quite relaxed about talks continuing for a short while but there has to be progress," said Mr Adams.

"This can't go on indefinitely. If you want a crystallisation about where this impasse is it is about rights."

He added: "It could be sorted out between now and Good Friday, it could be sorted out between now and 9pm tonight.

"All the issues are very, very clear for anyone who wants to look at them."

He said: "These are modest but important matters. Those in place - the institutions will flourish. Those not in place - the institutions will not be back."

Mr Adams said far bigger problems had been overcome in the past.

Dublin foreign minister Charlie Flanagan said an agreement was not only desirable but achievable.

He said there had been "some progress" in the talks but "challenging issues" remain.

"In particular, at this critical and challenging time for Northern Ireland as we approach negotiations on the UK's withdrawal from the EU, the restoration of a powersharing executive is essential.

"I welcome the Secretary of State's indication that he will include a provision to allow an executive to be formed in early May in legislation which he will bring forward after Easter.

"I believe that an agreement that fulfils the mandates given to the parties in the recent election is not only desirable but achievable in that time-frame.

"As the formal talks pause briefly for Easter, I encourage everyone to maintain informal contacts and to reflect on what can be achieved if, in the weeks ahead, an executive is established that operates effectively and sustainably."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he was "furious and frustrated" another deadline had been missed.

He accused other parties of letting their unelected special advisers have too prominent a role in the negotiations.

"It's time for us to get serious, let's put the advisers and the Spads (special advisers) outside of the room and let us politicians go into the room and roll up the sleeves and not come out until we get a deal done," said the Foyle MLA.

"I am furious, I am angry, I am frustrated - I don't know how I can look at the public out there when I meet them over the next couple of days that once again we have missed another deadline. I don't think it's good enough."

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