Bradley and Coveney call new party talks
A NEW round of political talks aimed at restoring the Stormont institutions is to be called today by Secretary of State Karen Bradley and Dublin's foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney.
The latest initiative, scheduled to begin next Wednesday, comes less than two weeks after Ms Bradley was appointed successor to James Brokenshire, who stepped down earlier this month due to ill health.
Mr Brokenshire oversaw two unsuccessful rounds of negotiations last year following the resignation of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in January.
Department of Finance officials warned last month that for an "effective budget" to be set and delivered by a new executive, it would need be agreed early next month.
The fresh negotiations are being called despite a potentially acrimonious by-election due to be staged in West Tyrone, triggered by the resignation earlier this week of Sinn Féin's Barry McElduff.
They would again involve Stormont's five main parties and the British and Irish governments.
Sinn Féin has previously said it will only engage in more talks if they are "meaningful" - a position the party's leader in the north Michelle O'Neill reiterated last night.
Ms Bradley is expected to tell a press conference in Belfast today that the latest bid is the "last opportunity to reach agreement" – indicating that if negotiations fail this time around, some form of direct rule will be imposed.
She will also signal that in contrast to last year's prolonged negotiations, the upcoming talks will be "short" and "intense".
The Tory MP is expected to say that the DUP and Sinn Féin "made progress in closing the gaps" over the course of last year's discussions.
"The gaps are narrow, but there are still significant differences to overcome.
“But based on my conversations so far, I believe it is possible to reach agreement."
Mrs Bradley will also warn that the north's public services can no longer suffer due to the lack of an executive and budget decisions.
Ms O'Neill last night said she and party colleagues are due to meet Mrs Bradley at Stormont today.
"I will again reassert our position that Sinn Féin stand ready to engage in talks, but only if they are meaningful and can reach a successful conclusion which sees the critical issues resolved."
She also said power-sharing can only be restored if the British government acts as a "neutral broker" during any talks.
"Their partisan approach to date has been underscored by their pact with the DUP at Westminster which completely eradicated any remaining pretence of impartiality and serves to compound the difficulties which exist."
She added: "The political will must also exist within the DUP which has not been evident to date".
At Westminster yesterday, DUP MP David Simpson called on the Tory government to appoint direct rule ministers in the absence of an executive being formed.
"In devolved terms, 2017 was a wasted year– key reforms and decisions impacting on our roads, schools and hospitals could not be made because Sinn Féin would not form an executive," he said.
"It would be shameful if much of 2018 was to be similarly wasted."