Fresh Stormont talks to restore devolution begin
FRESH talks aimed at restoring the power-sharing institutions are set to begin today.
Following last week's Westminster election, Stormont's main parties have showed a renewed eagerness get back around the negotiating table.
It also appears that despite a post-election shake-up, Julian Smith will remain secretary of state.
Mr Smith spoke with all five party leaders yesterday morning and later tweeted: "Good calls with all five party leaders this morning. Look forward to starting positive process tomorrow to get Stormont back up and running."
The Stormont institutions have been offline for nearly three years, with efforts to restore devolution frustrated by a stand-off between Sinn Féin and the DUP on issues such as Irish language legislation.
However, the big two parties both saw their share of the vote drop significantly in last Thursday's poll.
The DUP suffered a considerable blow after party deputy leader Nigel Dodds lost his seat in North Belfast to John Finucane, while Sinn Féin lost its seat in Foyle to the SDLP.
The SDLP also took a seat from the DUP in South Belfast.
In recent weeks DUP leader Arlene Foster and her Sinn Féin counterpart Mary Lou McDonald have given positive signals about the potential for striking a deal.
Mr Smith previously stated that unless agreement is reached by January 13, fresh assembly elections will be triggered.
In a statement yesterday confirming her party would attend today's series of bilateral meetings with the secretary of state, Mrs Foster there had been a "clear message" from the electorate that Northern Ireland had been deprived of government for three years.
"Central to the talks must be the sustainability of the institutions so never again can one party hold the rest of Northern Ireland to ransom – Sinn Féin has barred everyone from government for three years despite other parties willing to take their seats," she said.
Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O'Neill said her party wanted the institutions restored on a "credible and sustainable basis".
“A credible restored executive must deliver on issues such as public sector pay, safe staffing levels in the health service, economic policies that deliver prosperity and invest in rural communities, and an appropriate welfare mitigation package," she said.
Mr Eastwood described today's negotiations as a "last-chance".
"We will continue to stretch ourselves but it is for the DUP and Sinn Féin to set aside their dispute and act, at last, in the interests of the people we all represent," he said.
Alliance leader Naomi Long said if the deadlock was not broken then the secretary of state needed to call fresh elections.
"The Westminster election is clear proof people want Stormont to return and want to see a new form of politics – we now have a duty to deliver on that," she said.