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Framework for talks long overdue

THE results of last week's council elections have been widely interpreted as an expression of voters' desire that devolution should be restored as soon as possible.

There has been no assembly or executive at Stormont for more than two years. Nor has the British government introduced direct rule during this time.

Instead, civil servants have been left in an invidious position of trying to run government departments without ministerial direction.

All of this would be troubling at any time, but the difficulty has been exacerbated by Brexit and the unique challenges it poses, especially for Northern Ireland.

This wholly unsatisfactory situation means that Northern Ireland has been locked in a unique democratic deficit since Stormont collapsed amid the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal and recrimination between Sinn Féin and the DUP.

A deal to revive Stormont appeared to be in place in February 2018 but this fell apart, apparently at the last minute, over Irish language legislation proposals.

Since then, attempts to get the assembly working have been lacklustre at best.

In the wake of the murder of Lyra McKee in Derry last month and the extraordinary public reaction to her death - including Fr Martin Magill's challenge to politicians during her funeral - the British and Irish governments announced that they were convening fresh talks.

If the circumstances around Ms McKee's killing gave fresh momentum to the public's demand for talks between the political parties, then the council results appear to have given them a further push up the hill at Stormont.

In addition to the well established issues that need resolved, the terrain this latest set of talks must traverse in the future includes European elections, the findings of the RHI inquiry and an - eventual - conclusion to Brexit.

However, there is still reason to be optimistic that the talks, which began yesterday, may yet prove constructive.

Where the most recent efforts gave the impression of being rather hapless and disorganised, this time lessons appear to have been learned.

A framework for the talks process was published yesterday, detailing how the leaders of the five main parties will meet "at least weekly" with the secretary of state and Tánaiste Simon Coveney, "with the aim of achieving rapid progress".

In parallel with this, working groups will seek to reach agreement in five key areas: a programme for government; the transparency and accountability of the Executive; reform of the petition of concern; rights, language and identity issues; and improving the sustainability and stability of the Good Friday Agreement institutions.

Making this framework public has the advantage of introducing an element of accountability, though one may ask why it has taken so long to put such a structure on Stormont talks.

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