Talks to restore Stormont continue amid nurses strike

Political talks to restore powersharing at Stormont are continuing amid a strike by nurses in Northern Ireland’s crisis-hit health service.

The UK and Irish governments held a short round-table meeting with the five main parties on Wednesday morning.

A further plenary meeting is scheduled for the afternoon amid expectation that the governments are poised to put a draft outline of a deal on the table.

Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith and Irish Foreign Affairs minister Simon Coveney, who were in talks to 1am overnight, are expected to urge the parties to sign up to suggested proposals to address the vexed issues at the heart of the three-year impasse.

Ulster powersharing
Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith, right, Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney held talks to 1am on Wednesday morning (Presseye/PA)

The latest developments at Stormont came as Prime Minister Boris Johnson, addressing the Commons, urged the region’s politicians to “take responsibility” and get the institutions up and running again.

Ongoing industrial action by health workers has heaped pressure on the political leaders to get back into a devolved Assembly.

Thousands of nurses are on picket lines at hospitals across Northern Ireland amid a dispute over pay and staffing shortages.

Anne Waterman, 60, a staff nurse striking outside the Ulster Hospital, less than a mile from the gates of Stormont, delivered a stark message to the rowing politicians.

“If I was to stop working for three years I would not be getting paid, I think politicians here really have to step up to the mark, speak up for us and support us because we do not know what else to do,” she said.

Nurse strike
Nurses and supporters on the picket line at the Ulster Hospital, Dundonald (Liam McBurney/PA)

The last DUP/Sinn Fein-led coalition government collapsed in January 2017 over a row about a botched green energy scheme.

That dispute subsequently widened to take in more traditional wrangles on matters such as the Irish language and the thorny legacy of the Troubles.

Proposed legislative protections for Irish language speakers and reform of a contentious Stormont voting mechanism – called the petition of concern – have been the crucial sticking points in the most recent talks process, which got under way following the UK general election.

Sinn Fein has previously 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.

The long-running dispute has boiled down to whether new laws are contained in a stand-alone Bill or as part of a wider piece of legislation.

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