Northern Ireland parties in powersharing vow after ‘constructive’ meeting
Northern Ireland’s political leaders have vowed to strive for a deal to restore powersharing as a fresh talks process began at Stormont.
The leaders of the five main parties acknowledged mounting public impatience and anger at a stalemate that has left the region without a functioning devolved government for over two years.
They held a short round-table meeting at Stormont House on Tuesday afternoon for the first exchanges of a new talks process initiated by the UK and Irish governments.
During the meeting, Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney outlined the format for the latest bid to resolve the impasse.
The process will involve agenda-setting and stock-taking meetings between the five leaders and two governments at least once a week, with five working groups set up to focus on the detail of key disputes at the heart of the deadlock.
The tone of Tuesday’s preliminary meeting was understood to be more harmonious than the last gathering of the party leaders in the winter.
Afterwards, DUP leader Arlene Foster said she would enter the talks with a “good heart” and with determination to find a solution.
“We want devolution to work because we are a devolutionist party,” she said.
“From our part I was very clear with all the other parties that we will not be found wanting in getting a deal to get Stormont up and running again.
“We are entering this talks process to find a way forward. It has to, of course, be a balanced way forward and one that everyone in Northern Ireland is comfortable with, whether they are unionist, nationalist or indeed other – and I think that’s very important.
“We are not looking at the prospect of failure – we want this to work.”
The last DUP/Sinn Fein-led powersharing coalition imploded in January 2017 when the late Martin McGuinness quit as Sinn Fein deputy first minister amid a row about a botched green energy scheme.
The fallout over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was soon overtaken by disputes over the Irish language, the region’s ban on same-sex marriage and the toxic legacy of the Troubles.
Six previous talks initiatives to restore devolution have failed to find consensus.
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said her party was ready to “do the business”.
“The current stalemate is not acceptable and not sustainable, there are outstanding issues that need to be resolved, and we believe they can be resolved,” she said.
“If everybody is prepared to show leadership, if everybody is prepared to respect the clear public desire for equality and people’s rights to be recognised and delivered on, we can find our way back to powersharing.”
After the meeting, Mrs Bradley said: “None of us should be under any illusions about this.
“There are some very significant challenges and this is not going to be easy, and therefore I’d ask that we all give the parties time and space to allow them to address these difficult issues and to come to the right conclusion for the people of Northern Ireland, which is the restoration of devolution.”
She said she would not be making any further public comment on the talks during the process.
Mr Coveney described the first meeting as constructive and positive.
“All of the parties and their political leaders were very constructive for the initial meeting today, but clearly we’ve a lot of work to do,” he said.
“Everybody recognises that there is work to do to accommodate each other but certainly I think today was as constructive and positive a start as we could have hoped for.”
Doubts have been raised whether parties will be prepared to compromise during the European election campaign.
Mr Coveney insisted progress could be made ahead of the election, although he acknowledged a final resolution may not emerge until after the poll.
Efforts to resurrect the devolved institutions have been injected with fresh urgency following the dissident republican murder of journalist Lyra McKee in Londonderry last month.
Politicians are facing mounting public pressure to find consensus amid concerns that violent extremists are exploiting the power vacuum.
Last week’s local council elections recorded a surge in support for middle ground parties such as Alliance, with many interpreting the result as a sign of growing disaffection at the polarised Stormont stand-off.
While the DUP and Sinn Fein failed to make the gains at council level that some predicted, they remain the region’s two pre-eminent political forces and the fate of the Stormont talks is still in their hands.
The last talks process broke down in acrimony last February with claim and counter-claim on what had been agreed.
Sinn Fein said DUP leader Arlene Foster had agreed a draft deal to re-enter devolved government that included concessions on the Irish language – a claim Mrs Foster denied.
Many of the disputes are linked to a controversial voting mechanism that enables blocs of unionists and nationalists to veto measures which command overall majority support in the Assembly.
A number of the smaller parties are calling for changes to the contentious petition of concern, believing its reform could unlock several logjams at the heart of Stormont’s impasse.
With the UK Government reluctant to reintroduce direct rule from Westminster, Northern Ireland has operated in a political limbo for the last two years, with senior civil servants being left to run public services.
The civil servants are seriously hamstrung, unable to make key policy decisions in the absence of elected ministers.
As a consequence, numerous governmental decisions are in abeyance, with many major policy initiatives in cold storage.