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'We don’t have a lot of time': Last-ditch Stormont talks start next week

It’s been one year since the power-sharing administration collapsed in Northern Ireland.

Image: David Young

Updated at 2.45pm

AS A NEW phase of fresh talks to get the Northern Ireland Executive up and running was launched today, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney warned that the current situation “cannot be sustained for much longer”.

New Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley joined Coveney to announce the next stage in negotiations, which are aimed at restoring the devolved government at Stormont.

It’s been one year since the power-sharing administration collapsed in Northern Ireland, with a political stalemate setting in between Sinn Féin and the DUP.

This next stage in the negotiations is being dubbed as “one last opportunity” to reach an  agreement, with one source stating there is little over a month to strike a deal before “other options” are considered.

In a statement this afternoon, Coveney said: “We have been working together since the Assembly election in March 2017 to support discussions between the parties on the formation of a new Executive.

While significant progress has been achieved in these discussions in various formats, the necessary level of agreement between the parties that would allow them to form a new Executive has not yet been reached.

He stressed that Northern Ireland has now been without a functioning government for over a year and said this isn’t a position that can be sustained for much longer.

“We all have a responsibility over the coming weeks to make every possible effort to secure the effective operation of the devolved power-sharing institutions,” Coveney said.

“Karen and I will spare no effort in seeking a return to devolved power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, which is at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement.”

The talks will get under way next Wednesday.

A government source told TheJournal.ie yesterday that “a window exists now and a lot of work has gone in from all parties and the two governments to get it to this stage. We don’t have a lot of time and everyone knows that, but we need to make the most of this as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement”.

A year of difficulties 

Talks between the two main political parties in the North have been mired in difficulties over the last year, with deadlines being set by the former Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire, only for them to be missed.

Powersharing talks Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney at Stormont today. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

It’s understood the restoration of power hinges on three issues – the access to marriage equality for LGBT couples, an Irish language act, and a bill of rights.

Sky News reports Bradley as stating that the gaps between the DUP and Sinn Féin “are narrow, but there are still significant differences to overcome”.

She is reported as stating that her conversations so far indicate that it is possible to reach agreement.

And if no agreement is reached?

Before Christmas the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said in that case there are two options open.

“There first option is another set of elections, which is an option, although it’s hard to see what outcome would raise from that would put us in a better position. The second option is convening the British-Irish Governmental Conference, which would allow the two governments to implement the Good Friday Agreement in the absence of an assembly and executive in Northern Ireland,” he said, adding:

So essentially the Good Friday Agreement provides for matters that are not devolved to be dealt with by the British Irish Governmental Conference and that’s what we will seek.
We won’t be supporting direct rule. We didn’t support direct rule. So the alternative to the Assembly and the Executive being up and running is either a) an election or b) convening the British-Irish Government Conference and that’s what we’ll seek and I should point out that is what the Good Friday Agreement says.
So all we’d be seeking is the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement which as you know is an international agreement between two governments endorsed by referendum in both parts of the island.

Varadkar said he wouldn’t use the term “joint rule”.

I wouldn’t use the term joint rule, because that’s not the term used in the Good Friday Agreement. The Good Friday Agreement speaks of a British-Irish governmental conference which is not joint rule because obviously the legislative powers remain at Westminster but it does involve real and meaningful involvement of the Irish government.

- With reporting by Hayley Halpin

Read: One year on from Stormont collapse, there’s still no sign of a deal >

Read: Conservative MP Karen Bradley named as new Northern Ireland secretary >

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