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Northern Ireland powersharing crisis must end, parties told

The fight over the Irish language remains the key stumbling block.

Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill and Mary Lou McDonald.
Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill and Mary Lou McDonald.
Image: Niall Carson via PA

THE ELECTORATE IN Northern Ireland has delivered a loud message to Stormont’s politicians that the powersharing crisis must end, the British Secretary of State has said.

As the latest political bid to revive the dormant institutions began in Belfast, Julian Smith said he sensed the main parties had realised the people’s number-one priority was the floundering public services that have been left rudderless as a result of the three-year governance impasse.

Smith held bilateral meetings with the leaders of the five parties at Stormont House today as a new talks initiative process got under way ahead of a looming deadline in January. Roundtable talks involving the UK and Irish governments and all the parties are scheduled for later this week.

If a devolved executive is not resurrected by 13 January, legislation that gives the civil service extra powers to run public services will expire, and Smith will be under a legal duty to call a snap Assembly election.

A spiralling crisis in the North’s health service has heaped further pressure on the politicians to get back to work. Healthcare workers, who demonstrated at Stormont today, will go on strike this week in protest at pay restraints and staffing shortages.

While the DUP and Sinn Féin will need to settle their own differences before an Assembly can return, both parties have made clear that any agreement should also come with a financial commitment from the UK Government – money they want to use to address the problems in the health service.

After his meetings, Smith described the mood as “positive” and said he detected a willingness to strike a deal. He said the Government was willing to do “everything it can” to support any fresh investment in public services.

“I think there were some very interesting results in Northern Ireland,” he said of the election.

“The sense that I get today is that every party has had time to reflect and there are serious issues to reflect upon and the biggest message they got on the doorstep essentially wasn’t about Brexit, wasn’t about their own parties’ individual policies but it was the fact that this executive and assembly has remained dormant for 1,000 days and I think my sense from everybody is there was a realisation that that was not a sustainable position.

“The Good Friday Agreement was something that everybody worked incredibly hard on and this symbol, this empty symbol at the top of this hill (Stormont’s Parliament Buildings) cannot go on any longer – we have to govern and we have to get our Northern Ireland parties governing in the best interests of Northern Ireland citizens.”

Powersharing imploded almost three years ago amid a row about a botched green energy scheme.

That rift soon widened and refocused on long-standing disputes over issues such as the Irish language and same-sex marriage. With same-sex marriage having been legislated for at Westminster earlier this year, the wrangle over the Irish language remains the key stumbling block.

The parties are also trying to agree reforms to Assembly structures – in particular the contentious petition of concern voting mechanism that effectively hands large parties the ability to veto changes, even if a majority support them.

Commenting on his own future, Smith said the Prime Minister had asked him to get on with the talks and drive towards a successful outcome. He appeared to rule out the suggestion that some of the big ticket issues could be parked, or moved into a separate process, to enable the restoration of devolution immediately.

“The biggest tragedy for this talks process would be for this assembly to get up and running and then fail,” he said. “We have to address head-on the major issues that need resolving. I think the idea that we just paper over the cracks, get it up and running and it fails in a few weeks or a few months is not a good one.”

After meeting Smith, DUP leader Arlene Foster acknowledged that voters had made it very clear that they wanted Stormont back up and running.

“I listened very carefully during the election campaign and right throughout the election campaign there was a desire to get Stormont back up and running again,” she said.

“Therefore we are here to try to make that happen. I hope all the other parties will too.”

She agreed that the election had created a new “momentum” towards finding a resolution.

“I hope we can grasp it immediately,” she said.

“I very much hope that at the beginning of the new year we will have an assembly up and running and one that can deal with all the issues we have talked about today.”

Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald said there should be no “red lines” in the negotiations.

“It’s not helpful in the course of discussions for people to be setting out red lines or talking about red lines,” she said.

“That’s not how we understand these matters or how we articulate it. These are matters that have to be resolved. And it’s not about the political parties, it’s about citizens, it’s about people in particular who live here in the north.

“At a time of great challenges, because Brexit still looms large, there is an obligation to deliver on issues. So I don’t think anybody should be digging themselves into trenches and refusing to acknowledge and to honour other people’s rights.

“So, yes, the Irish language is an issue that I believe we can reach agreement, so too the issue of public services. We should never ask people to have to make a choice between those things.

“In any civilised, democratic system you recognise citizens’ rights and you also make provision for health, for education and for all the things we rely on in our day-to-day lives.”

She said any executive formed had to be “inclusive”, with all parties involved.

“We need a clear commitment from parties to really show up for work and form an executive,” she said.

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