Northern Ireland’s political parties meet new Secretary of State

Northern Ireland’s new Secretary of State has held a series of separate meetings with the five main parties in Belfast.

Julian Smith met the political parties at Stormont on Friday morning.

Mr Smith will now lead the all-party talks process in the hope of reaching a deal to restore the institutions in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein’s meeting with Mr Smith lasted about an hour.

They spoke about Brexit and the consequences of the UK crashing out of the EU.

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said she pressed him on the issue of Irish unity, adding that she hoped he was the last British Secretary of State.

She said: “We have stepped through all of the issues with him and obviously the outstanding rights issues and the issues that need to be resolved to ensure that the institutions can be restored, and that, crucially, we can deliver inclusive, sustainable and good government for every citizen living in this part of Ireland.

“He is aware of the issues. He is aware that they have been well rehearsed. He’s aware that this process of talks and negotiations has, to use his term, ebbed and flowed.

“He’s also aware that it needs to pick up momentum, that it can’t go on forever.

“He has committed that he will deal with all of the parties on the basis of equality and impartiality.”

Mrs McDonald said she also challenged him on the DUP’s confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives.

“We have said to him very clearly that that relationship has poisoned the water here and has conspired to keep the institutions down,” she added.

“I think his commitment to deal even-handedly will be tested in the coming weeks. We don’t need a ‘yes’ man.”

Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie said that Mr Smith cannot “sop” to the DUP.

“He does need time to put his feet under the table, but he doesn’t have a lot of time, he doesn’t have weeks. He can’t sit there and pontificate about what his next move is,” he added.

He called for the new Secretary of State to ramp up the talks process and give clear structure.

“He needs to give us a direction of travel, which we have been sadly lacking over the last few months and weeks,” he continued.

“We made it absolutely clear to him that no matter what his relationship is with the DUP, he cannot be a sop to their tantrums and cannot be meek and mild in front of Sinn Fein’s intransigence. He needs to bang their hands together.”

Mr Beattie added: “What he cannot do is ignore the smaller parties and think he’s going to bounce us at the very end of this process and expect us to jump in.

“There is an issue of governance and an issue of transparency, and we want to see those addressed properly.

“As Secretary of State he needs to be proactive and, if he is not, he will fall in exactly the same way as the last Secretary of State fell.”

In the first meeting between Irish and British government ministers since Boris Johnson’s appointment as Prime Minister, Ireland’s deputy premier Simon Coveney said he stressed the need to restore Stormont.

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