Unionists cool on outside mediation for Stormont talks
UNIONISTS have rejected calls for an outside mediator to oversee a fresh round of negotiations aimed at restoring devolution.
There is a growing expectation that Secretary of State James Brokenshire will launch a new bid to break the impasse that has left the north without a government for nearly a year.
Two prolonged rounds of talks last year failed to secure agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin.
Department of Finance officials warned last month that for an "effective budget" to be set and delivered by a new executive, it would need be agreed in early February.
Mr Brokenshire insists the restoration of devolution remains his priority. However, beyond saying he will work with Stormont's parties and the Dublin government "as appropriate", the secretary of state has yet to indicate either a format or a timeframe for the negotiations.
Alliance leader Naomi Long has repeated her party's long-held desire for the appointment of an independent mediator.
"It would give the process much-needed impetus and be an opportunity to hold parties to account for their attitude and honesty in the talks," she told The Irish News yesterday.
"A mediator can try to get the two largest parties to help understand the the reasons why devolution collapsed, why there is an ongoing impasse and how a common way forward can be found."
But both the DUP and Ulster Unionists have played down the idea of bringing in outside help.
A spokesman for the DUP said track record of independent chairs had "not always been positive or indeed successful".
"The solution lies in Sinn Féin dropping its shopping list of preconditions and putting the needs of our people first," the spokesman said.
"Calls for independent chairmen (sic) ignore the fact that only one party is blocking government in Northern Ireland."
Ulster Unionist negotiator Doug Beattie described calls for independent mediation as a "distraction".
The Upper Bann MLA said what was really needed was change in attitude from the DUP and Sinn Féin – particularly the latter, he said.
"Sinn Féin talk about the rights of the people of Northern Ireland while they deny the right of the majority of our people to be democratically represented," he said.
"There can be no greater failure of any government – be it devolved or direct rule – than to let its people go unrepresented. Sinn Féin pledged to represent all our people and they are failing miserably."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the British government was not an independent arbiter.
"A government reliant on DUP support cannot be trusted to take a neutral view on matters which the DUP is invested in," he said.
"Agreeing to talk is not a compromise in itself and should not become the subject of a barter – the only way forward now is an inclusive talks process with an independent chair, a position the SDLP has held consistently over the last year."