Karen Bradley gets a flavour of the bitterness behind the Stormont impasse
THE magnitude of the task facing new Secretary of State Karen Bradley as she embarks on a fresh bid to restore devolution was spelled out yesterday as the DUP and Sinn Féin continued to show little appetite for compromise.
Only 48 hours into her new role, the Tory MP was given a flavour of the toxic relations between Stormont's two largest parties that have left the power-sharing institutions languishing for the past 12 months.
Mrs Bradley held meetings with most of the party leaders on her first visit to the north but logistical difficulties were said to have prevented face-to-face talks with Sinn Féin northern leader Michelle O'Neill.
The pair spoke on the phone and plan to meet next week when the secretary of state returns to Belfast.
Mrs Bradley did meet Arlene Foster at Stormont House, where she was told that if fresh negotiations failed to deliver a breakthrough, then direct rule ministers needed to be put in place.
The DUP leader said afterwards that the "clock was ticking" for a deal and with an impending need for a budget for the next financial year, any new talks process had to be "short, meaningful and substantive".
"I think she's heard directly today from people that they want to see government back here and if it's not going to be a devolved administration then it will have to be some sort of an administration direct from Westminster," Mrs Foster said.
"Of course we don't want that – we want devolution - but we can't continue without a government here in Northern Ireland."
The former first minister dismissed calls for an independent talks chair or a change in venue, describing such moves as "window dressing".
Mrs Foster also claimed the planned meeting between Ms O'Neill and the secretary of state was rescheduled due to criticism Sinn Féin received over Barry McElduff's 'Kingsmill' tweet.
The West Tyrone MP has apologised and insisted a social media video of him last week balancing Kingsmill break on his head was not intended to be a reference to the 10 sectarian murders at Kingsmill, Co Armagh on the same day in 1976.
He has been suspended by Sinn Féin for three months on full pay.
Asked for her reaction to the postponement of the meeting, the DUP leader said: "It's another indication that all is not well in Sinn Fein and they are a party in disarray at present."
A Sinn Féin spokesman said the meeting had not gone ahead due to clashing diary commitments and branded Mrs Foster's claim "nonsense".
"Arlene Foster might be better focusing on the denial of rights that people enjoy everywhere else on these islands," he added.
In statement issued after she had spoken to the secretary of state, Ms O'Neill also claimed the DUP leader was not serious about resolving the crisis.
"The call today by the DUP leader for the introduction of Tory direct rule makes clear they have no interest in resolving the issues at the heart of the current crisis and no interest in re-entering power-sharing on the basis of equality and respect," she said.
"Martin McGuinness made clear there can be no denial of the rights of citizens and no return to the status quo – the agreements make clear there can be no return to direct rule."
The Sinn Féin northern leader said her party was ready to engage in talks and to re-establish the institutions but questioned whether the DUP was "serious about partnership government".
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the secretary of state needed to call inclusive talks.
"Unfortunately, there’s no honeymoon period with this job though and I pressed Karen Bradley on the urgent need for a new, inclusive talks process facilitated by an independent chair immediately," he said.
"There is no time left to go through the same failed process between two parties and cross our fingers, hoping things will be different."
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said the parties preventing devolution should "get out of the way and let the other parties get on with it"
"If there are parties that want to exclude themselves then they need to get out of the way and stop preventing those of us who want to do the job from doing so," he said.
"I also made it clear to the secretary of state that it is totally untenable that Sinn Féin should be allowed to continue to make a mockery of UK taxpayers – I asked that the government carry out a review of the expenses system and how abstentionists continue to be able to benefit from this pot of public money while not taking their seats."