Northern Ireland news

Sinn Féin seeks clarification from secretary of state amid hopes of breaking Stormont deadlock

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald with deputy Michelle O'Neill and Conor Murphy at Stormont last night. Picture by Hugh Russell

THERE were hopes last night of a breakthrough in the latest Stormont deadlock, paving the way for the executive to meet to today to agree a series of relaxations in Covid regulations.

Both Sinn Féin and the DUP held emergency talks with Secretary of State Brandon Lewis, aimed at ending the standoff over the nomination of the first and deputy first ministers.

Sinn Féin has said it will not endorse the nomination of First Minister-designate Paul Givan until commitments on Irish language legislation are honoured.

After the Sinn Féin delegation led by leader Mary Lou McDonald left the Stormont House last night, a brief statement from the party said it was seeking "more information and clarification".

Before the meeting, Mrs McDonald said the solution to the impasse was for Westminster to legislate for the cultural package agreed as part of last year's New Decade New Approach deal, including Irish language protections.

"It's the obvious way forward," she said.

While the DUP later left without comment, there was an air of optimism ahead of last night's meetings, with sources indicating that if the right assurances were provided to Sinn Féin by the secretary of state, the nomination of Mr Givan as first minister could proceed today.

His nomination and that of Michelle O'Neill as deputy first minister would enable the executive to convene today to rubber stamp relaxations in coronavirus restrictions, including increasing the number of people from different households who can socialise together and a limited return of live music.

Last night's effort to keep devolution alive came against the background of deteriorating Anglo-Irish relations.

Remarks by Leo Varadkar about the possibility of united Ireland in his lifetime met with an angry response from unionists.

The tánaiste yesterday defended his comments and, amid accusations that he was attempting to "out green" Sinn Féin, insisted what he said had nothing to do with next month's Dublin Bay South by-election.

He dismissed suggestions that his comments would further sour relations between Stormont's parties.

“If they're unable to put together an executive in the next week, that would be because of relations between the parties in Northern Ireland, not for anything external in my view, but I do think that they will be able to do that by the way. I would ask the counter question, when is the good time," he said.

Earlier at Westminster, Mr Lewis had expressed surprise at the Fine Gael leader's remarks.

In an unusual intervention, he suggested Mr Varadkar had engaged in electioneering, pointing to Sinn Féin topping opinion polls in the Republic.

"I would urge everyone to dial down any rhetoric, particularly at this time of year, I think it is unhelpful and ill-advised," he said.

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