Power sharing: Parties set to resume Stormont talks

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Northern Ireland has had no devolved government since January 2017

Northern Ireland’s political parties are to resume talks aimed at restoring devolved government at Stormont.

It follows the general election, which returned the Conservatives with a large Commons majority and saw a fall in vote share for both the DUP and Sinn Féin.

Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith spoke by phone to the leaders of NI’s five biggest parties on Sunday.

He said he was looking forward to starting a “positive process” to get Stormont back up and running.

The talks follow a pledge from the UK and Irish governments to restore the power-sharing executive.

Discussions on Monday will be separate meetings between Mr Smith and representatives from the various parties, with round table talks set to happen later in the week.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has been inactive since January 2017, when its two biggest partes, the DUP and Sinn Féin, split in a bitter row.

Several rounds of talks to restore the executive have ended in failure, with the two parties unable to resolve differences over issues such as the Irish language or how to deal with the legacy of the Troubles.

‘Clear message’

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster said a desire for the restoration of Stormont was “the clear message of the election”.

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Arlene Foster pictured as results came in at the election count in Belfast on Friday

“Central to the talks must be the sustainability of the institutions so never again can one party hold the rest of Northern Ireland to ransom,” she said.

“Northern Ireland can only move forward when we are prepared to work together,” she added.

‘Not red lines’

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald was asked on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme if her party was prepared to go into Monday’s talks “with nothing in the way of red lines”.

“You can’t go in and negotiate something on the basis of nothing,” she replied.

“You can’t deliver a programme for government and good, inclusive, respectful government for every citizen on the basis of nothing.”

However, she added: “I don’t describe any of these matters as red lines.”

Ms McDonald said issues around an Irish Language Act “need to be resolved” and added that the talks must also address Troubles legacy issues and the Stormont veto mechanism known as the petition of concern.

Stormont back on the agenda

By Jayne McCormack, BBC News NI political reporter

With the DUP and Sinn Féin both suffering some bruising defeats in Thursday’s election, the focus has shifted back to Stormont.

Julian Smith has kept his role in Boris Johnson’s cabinet as the Northern Ireland secretary, insisting talks must reach a breakthrough before 13 January, or he will be legally required to call a fresh assembly election.

It seems unlikely the two biggest parties would relish another election so soon – but, we have been here before.

There are still hurdles to overcome, if a deal is to be brokered quickly.

Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Steve Aiken has called for reforms to be made, and said the “core issues which undermined devolution previously” must be addressed.

Alliance party leader and MEP Naomi Long said her party would be playing a “constructive role” in restoring the institutions.

“If there is no successful resolution, the secretary of state must call fresh elections and then it is over to the public to elect those who want to get on with the job of delivering for everyone,” she said.

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SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood said the parties must set aside their differences to restore power sharing institutions at Stormont.

He said: “We are entering last-chance talks this week. The SDLP has made bold proposals that are uncomfortable for us but are in the interests of restoring government to meet the needs of patients, pupils and healthcare workers.”

The legal date for an assembly election to be called if no power-sharing government is formed at Stormont is 13 January.

Top priority

During a phone call on Friday evening, Mr Johnson and Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar said they would work closely with the Northern Ireland parties to help bring back devolution.

They also agreed on the importance of a close relationship between the UK and Ireland.

Mr Johnson updated the taoiseach on the timings for the reintroduction of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill next week and its passage through Parliament to ensure the UK leaves the EU on 31 January.

The prime minister made clear in the phone call his top priority was the restoration of a functioning executive as soon as possible.

He said Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith would dedicate himself to the talks process.

Mr Smith has previously said the consequences are “profound” if the assembly was not restored soon.