Window of opportunity for talks to restore Stormont ‘closing rapidly’

The window of opportunity to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland is “closing rapidly”, the Alliance Party leader has warned.

Naomi Long was speaking after Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith welcomed comments by the DUP and Sinn Fein leaders over the weekend as “commitments” to resuming talks after the General Election.

In an interview with the PA news agency, DUP leader Arlene Foster called for the resumption of negotiations with Sinn Fein in a bid to break the Stormont impasse over the Irish language.

The DUP leader insisted the dispute, which she said centred on the “details” of proposed legislation, should not be allowed to prevent the restoration of the devolved institutions any longer.

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill responded to the comments on Sunday saying she remains “committed to working towards a new Assembly and a new kind of politics in the New Year”.

Mr Smith tweeted that he welcomed “commitments today by both major NI party leaders to commit to immediate talks after GE”.

General Election 2019
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long speaking at the party’s General Election manifesto launch at the Park Avenue Hotel in east Belfast (Rebecca Black/PA)

However, speaking at her party’s manifesto launch in east Belfast on Monday, Mrs Long said she believes the window for talking is “closing rapidly”.

“I think that the opportunity for talking, the window on that is closing rapidly so we are certainly committed that after this election, we need to get back around the table and have those discussions if not before because every day that we don’t do that is a lost opportunity,” she said.

“This continual talking without walking is not going to deliver any progress, so whilst I am happy to go back into talks and will do so in good faith and with the intent of finding solutions, what we need are for the two main parties to come to the table willing to compromise.

“Without that commitment to do so and without the commitment to get the Assembly up and running by January 13, then I think we have no option at that stage but to go back to the people and ask them to return a different Assembly, one capable of actually forming an Executive and doing the job which we were elected to so three years and have only had, I think, about nine months of ability to be able to deliver.”

The Irish language stand-off remains the main obstacle in the way of a return to powersharing.

Sinn Fein has insisted it will not return to a coalition with the DUP until there is agreement to pass a stand-alone Irish Language Act.

The DUP has said it is willing to agree legislative protections for Irish speakers but only as part of wider cultural laws that would also include British and Ulster Scots traditions.

General Election 2019
DUP leader Arlene Foster has called for negotiations to revive Stormont to resume after the General Election (Liam McBurney/PA)

Ms Foster said her approach was the “right way forward”.

“There are many people in Northern Ireland who love the Irish language, and we have no desire to put a barrier up to them accessing public services,” she said.

“And therefore we believe there’s ways of doing that through legislation and, indeed, through facilitation, and we can do that – that’s not a problem.

“But why are we holding up the Assembly while we’re trying to work out the details of all of that?”

She reiterated her proposal to restore the Assembly and set up a parallel process to find a resolution to the language dispute.

Mrs Foster added: “But I can’t move anywhere without the co-operation of the other parties. And therefore, if we’re genuinely wanting to move Northern Ireland forward, which of course I am, let us get into those negotiations after the General Election is over and let’s get devolution back again.”

Ms O’Neill responded on Sunday saying: “Sinn Fein stands ready to form a credible, sustainable and inclusive executive.

Sinn Féin stands ready to form a credible, sustainable and inclusive executive – @moneillsf

— Sinn Féin (@sinnfeinireland) November 24, 2019

“The Sinn Fein leadership met British Secretary of State Julian Smith last week to set out our position. We will meet Tanaiste Simon Coveney this week to do the same.

“If the Executive is to be credible, then it must deliver on issues such as public sector pay, safe staffing levels in the health service, economic policies that delivers prosperity for all and that invests in rural communities, and a mitigation package that protects people from Tory welfare reform.”

She added: “To be credible all the outstanding issues must be dealt with including an Irish Language Act and reform of the Petition of Concern and we need to tackle the failure by the British government to implement the Stormont House Agreement and deal with the issue of legacy.”

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