Stormont powersharing deal achievable in days, Karen Bradley says

A deal to save powersharing at Stormont is achievable within the coming days, the Northern Ireland Secretary has said.

Karen Bradley said an agreement was by no means certain, but she expressed hope resolution between Sinn Fein and Democratic Unionists could be secured in the near future.

However, Mrs Bradley declined to outline specific details on the ongoing political negotiations in Belfast as she updated the House of Commons, insisting she did not want to jeopardise a successful outcome.

"An accommodation between the parties has not yet been reached, but there is no doubt as to the parties' collective commitment towards the restoration of devolution," said told MPs.

"I firmly believe that an agreement in the coming days, while not certain, is achievable and this remains my focus."

The locked gates at Stormont (Niall Carson/PA)
The locked gates at Stormont (Niall Carson/PA)

Northern Ireland has been without a functioning administration for over a year after the last DUP/Sinn Fein-led coalition imploded in a row over a botched green energy scheme.

That rift subsequently widened to take in long-running disputes over culture, social issues and legacy.

The current talks process has been characterised as a final opportunity to save the devolved institutions before the UK Government moves to introduce a form of Westminster direct rule.

The process involved all five main Stormont parties and the UK and Irish governments. Another round table engagement is scheduled for the end of the week.

Civil servants have been running Stormont's public services during the impasse, however they are hamstrung by their inability to take major policy decisions.

With the pressing need for budget to be struck for the next financial year, if the latest talks bid fails, the UK Government will face mounting pressure to introduce a form of Westminster direct rule to provide financial certainty.

During Northern Ireland questions in the Commons, the DUP's Nigel Dodds pressed Mrs Bradley to make a firm commitment that she would intervene to set a budget.

The Secretary of State declined to offer such a direct pledge, but she highlighted that her predecessor, James Brokenshire, had done something similar for the current year's budget.

One of the key sticking points in the impasse is the region's ongoing ban on same sex marriage. Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Smith urged Mrs Bradley to take the issue off the table by legislating for a change in marriage laws at Westminster.

The Conservative MP insisted it was for local politicians to decide on the contentious issue.

"This is clearly a matter which is a devolved issue and quite rightly should be legislated for at Stormont."

Earlier, Ireland's deputy premier Simon Coveney also struck an optimistic note as he addressed a business conference in Co Louth.

"There remain challenges for the parties, but I remain convinced that an agreement can and will be reached," the tanaiste said.

"I am convinced each of the parties want to see the devolved institutions in operation, but of course they must come to an accommodation for each other and that can't be forced on them.

"A new executive though is critical - for decision making in Northern Ireland, for the peace process and for ensuring that Northern Ireland's interests as a whole can be directly and effectively represented through the Brexit negotiations."

Chief Constable George Hamilton and Chief Superintendent Philip Knox meeting @simoncoveney Tánaiste & Minister for Foreign Affairs & Trade today to at the Police College , Garnerville. #KeepingPeopleSafepic.twitter.com/EKzD0EoUlf

-- PSNI (@PoliceServiceNI) February 7, 2018

Mr Coveney later visited the Police Service of Northern Ireland's training college in east Belfast.

While he said it was not his role to disclose details of the negotiations or a timeframe for their conclusion, he insisted the format of the talks was working.

"The parties are working intensively to try to find a way forward," she said.

"If the two governments didn't believe that the current approach towards trying to find a way forward wasn't going to work then we would be looking to try to change that approach, we are sticking with it and it's up to the parties to give information to the public in terms of where things stand and what timescale they are on and I think the two governments are working together on this."

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