'Show real leadership' Stormont parties urged as fresh talks begin
STORMONT parties have been urged to show "real leadership" as a fresh talks process begins today in a bid to restore power-sharing.
An opening session involving the parties and the British and Irish governments is expected to be held at Stormont House from 1pm.
The latest round of negotiations comes more than two years since the DUP and Sinn Féin-led executive collapsed in the wake of the RHI scandal.
Both parties insist they want devolution restored, but the rift has widened to include disagreement over issues including same-sex marriage and an Irish language act.
Efforts to revive the Stormont institutions received fresh impetus following last month's dissident republican murder of Lyra McKee in Derry.
But with the parties battling for votes in the European Parliament elections on May 23, any immediate talks breakthrough is viewed as highly unlikely.
Ahead of the negotiations, business community leaders yesterday renewed their calls for the restoration of the assembly and Northern Ireland Executive.
Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said: "The business community need these talks to be fruitful or we risk strangling investment and growth in Northern Ireland.
"The longer we are without a functioning assembly, the further we fall behind our neighbours to the east and south."
He said it was "simply tragic and unforgivable" that there are no Stormont assembly committees "to give scrutiny to Brexit proposals and the effect on our economy and communities".
Glyn Roberts, Retail NI chief executive, said: "We need the executive restored and local ministers making the key budgetary decisions based on sound evidence-based policy."
He added: "In these talks we need to see real leadership by our local political parties and an end to the blame game. 2019 cannot be yet another year with no government, no political progress and economic stagnation."
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Mr Roberts also called for a "fourth strand" to be established in the negotiations to include key civic society organisations.
He said this would support the parties in "building a genuine partnership approach to a rebooted economic agenda".
The new talks process was announced last month in a joint statement by British Prime Minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
They said the aim was "quickly to re-establish to full operation the democratic institutions of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement" to "effectively serve all of the people for the future".
Some of the disagreements between the parties are linked to the 'petition of concern' (PoC), a divisive assembly voting mechanism which allows blocs of unionists and nationalists to veto measures which command overall majority support.
Parties disagree over how to reform the PoC in a bid to break the logjam, or whether to scrap it altogether.
At Westminster last week, Secretary of State Karen Bradley said there is a "narrow window in which genuine progress can be made" in restoring devolution.
But she would not be drawn on whether this meant a deadline would be set.
It also remains unclear whether the fresh talks will include an independent chair, which has previously been pushed for by some Stormont parties.