Fresh talks aimed at kickstarting Stormont to get underway
SECRETARY of State Karen Bradley has refused to be drawn on setting a deadline for the latest round of Stormont talks but Sinn Féin has said it will give the "short" and "intense" negotiations just two weeks.
Mrs Bradley and Tanaiste Simon Coveney yesterday confirmed that they will begin a renewed effort to restore the devolved institutions next Wednesday.
They said a solution to the impasse which has seen the institutions lie idle since last January must be found in "weeks rather than months".
The secretary of state said there were "significant difficulties to overcome" but she remained optimistic that a deal could be struck.
"Based on my conversations so far, I believe it is possible to reach agreement," she said before insisting she was not contemplating failure.
Mrs Bradley said she would be updating Westminster on the progress of the negotiations "no later than February 7". However, she did not earmark that date as deadline for the conclusion of the talks.
"Progress must be swift – it is clear that Northern Ireland needs strong devolved government and political leadership," she said.
"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."
Mr Coveney said that as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, the two governments had a responsibility to ensure the effective functioning of its institutions.
He said it was in "this spirit" that London and Dublin had worked since last March's assembly election to "support discussions between the parties on the formation of a new executive and on implementing outstanding issues from previous agreements".
"We all have a responsibility over the coming weeks to make every possible effort to secure the effective operation of the devolved power-sharing institutions," the tanaiste said.
"On the basis of the discussions over recent months, I continue to believe that an agreement to form a new executive can be achieved."
Mr Coveney said all parties were "very conscious of the time pressures".
"I think we are talking about weeks rather than months here," he said.
Sinn Féin confirmed the party would participate in the talks, with northern leader Michelle O'Neill saying she anticipated the negotiations would last two weeks.
She repeated her long-standing assertion that the institutions could only be restored on the basis of "equality, respect and genuine partnership government".
"These talks will be a test of whether the British government and the DUP are finally willing to endorse these basic principles," the Mid Ulster MLA said.
"Both governments have a responsibility for rights and equality under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement."
Ms O'Neill said she had told the secretary of state at their first face-to-face meeting yesterday that "the British government is not a neutral and impartial player".
"For too long, the British Government has acquiesced in the denial of rights that are available everywhere else on these islands," she said.
DUP MLA Simon Hamilton welcomed the announcement of fresh negotiations.
He said his party "did not walk away" and he welcomed "Sinn Féin's re-engagement".
"I think it is now incumbent on all of us to get round the table and build on the progress that has been made to date, get devolution up and running again so local ministers can take decisions that matter to the people of Northern Ireland and get devolution up and running again and working for everybody across the province," the former Stormont minister said.
But he said a deal would only be possible if republicans approached the negotiations with "realism".
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he had spoken to his Ulster Unionist and Alliance counterparts and they were in agreement that the "progress and compromises supposedly made between the DUP and Sinn Féin must be shared and the negotiations must proceed on that basis".
"The pattern of previous failure is why I have made it clear to both governments that these talks must be conducted completely differently – we cannot go on doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome," he said.
"That means no party which holds a mandate from the people of the north can be expected to act as window dressing for private negotiations between the DUP and Sinn Féin."
The Foyle MLA said that unlike the past, "inclusive talks must mean inclusive talks".
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said the negotiations were an "opportunity which should be seized".
"We also need to be realistic – if parties are going into these talks demanding the implementation of their red lines, then we`ll be on the road to nowhere," he said.
"Hopefully we will see some realism take hold."
Alliance leader Naomi Long gave the announcement a cautious welcome but again called for an independent mediator.
"The appointment of an independent facilitator would be another significant step forward and we are disappointed that has not yet happened," she said.