Political news

Two weeks to save Stormont - parties told new powersharing talks must make rapid progress

 Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill confirms that the party will enter the talks process. Picture by Hugh Russell

A fresh round of talks to restore powersharing in Northern Ireland must find a solution in "weeks rather than months", leaders have been warned.

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley and Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney confirmed at Stormont that fresh negotiations will begin next Wednesday.

Mrs Bradley said there were still "significant difficulties to overcome" but she believed a resolution is possible.

A deal must be secured in "weeks rather than months", Mr Coveney said.

Failure to make "rapid progress" will mean the British government will face significant decisions, including setting a budget for the new financial year, Mrs Bradley said.

MLA pay and a fresh election would also be looked at and "ultimately other arrangements" she warned.

Mrs Bradley said the need for a solution was "urgent" and the political consequences of failing to reach a deal would present a "significant setback to the progress" made since the Good Friday Agreement.

"A short, intense set of political talks to restore the executive" will begin on Wednesday.

"Based on my conversations so far, I believe it is possible to reach agreement," Mrs Bradley said before insisting she was "not thinking" about the talks failing.

She added: "Progress must be swift. It is clear that Northern Ireland needs strong devolved government and political leadership.

She added: "I told Karen Bradley that the British government is not a neutral and impartial player and there must be a change of approach on her part.

"For too long, the British government has acquiesced in the denial of rights that are available everywhere else on these islands."

"The people of Northern Ireland cannot continue to have their public services suffer by the lack of an executive and without ministers making the key policy and budget decisions."

Mrs Bradley said she will be updating Parliament on the progress of the talks "no later than February 7".

Mr Coveney said all parties were "very conscious of the time pressures".

"I think we are talking about weeks rather than months here," the tanaiste said.

"The pressures have been building for some months now in the context of decisions that need political input from a devolved government here in Northern Ireland that can't be made in the absence of the being possible."

Sinn Féin has confirmed it will enter the talks "on a short and intensive basis". Northern  leader Michelle O'Neill said her party's timeframe for the talks in two weeks.

She said the talks would be a test of whether the British goverment and the DUP were "finally willing" to endorse "equality, respect and genuine partnership government".

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