Governments poised to make public draft deal to restore Stormont

The UK and Irish governments are poised to make public a proposed deal to restore Stormont powersharing as they urge the region’s politicians to sign up.

There is an expectation the document will be tabled to the parties at some point on Wednesday.

It is understood the proposals will then be published more widely, either on Wednesday or later in the week.

The planned timetable had still to be confirmed on Tuesday evening as Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith and Irish Foreign Affairs minister Simon Coveney held talks to discuss the text.

Ulster powersharing
Ulster powersharing

They were expected to be involved in lengthy discussions through the evening.

Publishing a draft text prior to securing a deal among the Stormont parties would represent a new approach for political negotiations in Northern Ireland.

If the document is made public on Wednesday, offering voters the chance to assess what compromises are on offer, it would coincide with the latest strike action by workers in the region’s crisis-hit health service.

Nurses will be on the picket lines in an ongoing protest over pay and staffing shortages.

Proposed legislative protections for Irish language speakers and reform of a contentious Stormont voting mechanism called the petition of concern are the key issues at the heart of talks to restore powersharing three years after it imploded.

On Tuesday, DUP leader Arlene Foster said all the main Stormont parties were in the space where they wanted to deliver a deal.

The DUP leader said her party stood ready to sign up to agreement, if “fair and balanced” resolutions to the outstanding issues were achieved.

“I do think a deal is possible,” she said. “It should be a deal, as I have said all along, that is fair and is balanced and I hope that is what we can achieve.”

Earlier on Tuesday, the Sinn Fein leadership briefed a packed meeting of party representatives on the state of negotiations.

Ms Foster said once her party had sight of the governments’ text, she and colleagues would assess whether it addressed their concerns on the outstanding issues.

“I think everybody is in the space where they want to do a deal, let’s get down, let’s focus and make sure we do that deal,” she said.

Asked about reports of angry exchanges during a meeting of the party leaders on Monday she denied relations had deteriorated, and claimed things had been blown out of proportion by the media.

Ms Foster also highlighted mental health as a “key priority” for the new executive.

“I hope that we can reflect that in the work that we do, if and when we get an executive back up and running again,” she added.

Ulster Unionist Assembly member Robbie Butler said the talks process lacked urgency.

“There really does need to be a refocusing of minds and a more concerted effort to get these talks to a conclusion,” he said.

“The problems and difficulties are well rehearsed. There have been three years of intensive and non-intensive talks and, as we can see today, there is no real intensity. We would like to see that stepped up within the next 24 hours.”

Mr Butler said parties needed to get into powersharing to address a range of urgent social problems, including what he described as a “mental health epidemic”, citing a recent spate of suicides in the region.

The UUP MLA said he wanted to see a new Stormont administration deliver a comprehensive mental health strategy.

Sinn Fein has demanded a stand-alone Irish Language Act as a prerequisite of any deal to restore devolution.

The DUP has expressed a willingness to legislate to protect the language, but only as part of broader culture laws which also include the Ulster Scots tradition.

So the dispute essentially boils down to whether new laws are contained in a stand-alone Bill or as part of a wider piece of legislation.

The Orange Order, which is among a range of interest groups who have met the Secretary of State to give their views, has restated its “implacable” opposition to a stand-alone act.

Grand Secretary Mervyn Gibson said the language had been used as a “blunt instrument” to push an Irish identity.

“The Irish language has been weaponised in the past,” he said.

Mr Gibson said a stand-alone act could be subject to future legal challenges aimed at making it more comprehensive than initially intended.

“It could grow and grow into a situation where people across the province are forced into a situation where they have to endure Irish, and that shouldn’t be the case,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.

While opposing a stand-alone act, Mr Gibson did not rule out a broader piece of legislation that encompassed Irish and other traditions, such as Ulster Scots.

“We would look at it,” he said.