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Theresa May says there is 'basis for agreement' to get Stormont 'up and running very soon'

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British Prime Minister Theresa May met today for last-ditch talks to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland.

British Prime Minister Theresa May speaking to the media at Stormont Parliament
British Prime Minister Theresa May speaking to the media at Stormont Parliament
Image: Eamonn Farrell via Rolling News

Updated at 7pm

BRITISH PRIME MINISTER Theresa May has said there is a “basis for an agreement” at Stormont and that a Northern Ireland Executive could be “up and running very soon”.

May was speaking after meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, the DUP and Sinn Féin to discuss the restoration of power-sharing at Stormont.

The DUP and Sinn Féin have been engaged in negotiations to try to agree on the issues that forced the power-sharing executive at Stormont to collapse over a year ago.

“It has been 13 long months since we last saw devolved government here and I think we are now at the point of where it is time for the locally elected representatives to find a way to work together and to death with a tackle the many pressing issues facing Northern Ireland,” May said, speaking to reporters this evening.

She added that she had “full and frank conversations” with the five parties in Northern Ireland,

While some differences remain, I believe that it is possible to see the basis of an agreement here. There is the basis of an agreement and it should be possible to see an Executive up and running in Northern Ireland very soon.

What next? 

Following the appointment of Karen Bradley as the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, talks began again over two weeks ago. Although it now is looking rather unlikely, if this round of talks fail, as previous ones have, it’s possible that Westminster will return to direct rule; already it has had to pass budget measures at the end of last year to ensure public services are funded.

Although the topics the two parties are discussing remains secret, the central stumbling block is understood to be Sinn Féin’s demand for a standalone Irish Language Act, as well as the cash-for-ash scandal, and achieving marriage equality.

Varadkar tweeted a photo this afternoon of his meeting with Theresa May and her team.

“Constructive talks on restoring power-sharing and Brexit. Next up: Meeting leaders of the Northern Irish parties,” Varadkar said.

Speaking to reporters this evening, Varadkar said that the Irish government will support parties in Northern Ireland as the negotiation talks continue as best as it can.

When asked if completing talks this week is realistic, Varadkar said the government is hopeful that the DUP and Sinn Féin will come to an agreement by the end of the week.

We have to be patient. If there’s going to be an Executive established, it requires an accommodation between the DUP and Sinn Féin, and that’s something they really need to work on themselves.

Standing beside Varadkar, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said: “Having the Taoiseach here today has reinforced the partnership the two parties had. We will continue this week to work with the two parties as we have to allow an Executive be formed.”

Sinn Féin’s response

Speaking before Varadkar and May this evening, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has said her party does not believe there is “anything insurmountable left to resolve” in talks to restore the Executive in Northern Ireland.

“This is now a decisive phase of the process, this is the week for decision time,” McDonald said.

We made it very clear when we came into this round of talks that we did so on the basis that we would have delivery, that there was clarity on the key outstanding issues and that we would not enter into an endless meandering process because ultimately for a deal to happen the parties have to want a deal to happen.

“We don’t believe there is anything now insurmountable left to resolve.”

DUP leader Arlene Foster said that “good progress” has been made and the two parties will continue to “find an accommodation that recognises the need to respect all languages and all cultures in Northern Ireland”.

Late last night, a spokesperson for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he would ”use his visit to encourage the parties to reach an agreement” so that functioning institutions in Northern Ireland can commence work again.

The government has consistently said that the restoration of the institutions is essential in the context of full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, and that it will continue to work very closely with the British government to support the Northern parties to achieve this outcome.

Turning the conversation towards Brexit during this evening’s press conference, Varadkar said they are developing the withdrawal agreement and negotiating this with the UK.

Coveney said that Brexit added pressure at times to negotiations about Northern Ireland power-sharing.

Britain’s stance 

During her speech this evening, May stressed that she believes progress has been made in recent days, and also remind the parties of the many pressing issues facing Northern Ireland.

She confirmed that the UK government “remains ready” to introduce legislation to enable the re-establishment of an Executive as soon as possible following an agreement.

“What I am clear about is that we are fully committed to doing everything we can to support this process – and as far as Westminister is concerned, we stand ready to legislate for the re-establishment of an Executive as soon as possible after an agreement,” May said.

Sinn Féin’s deputy leader Michelle O’Neill said there has to be “give and take” in the Stormont negotiations at the party’s Ard Fheis this weekend.

“There is no doubt that progress has been made, but there are outstanding issues which remain unresolved,” she said, adding that talks were due to conclude this week.

Gerry Adams himself said that it was too close to call whether this round of talks would be successful.

“It would be wrong to call it either way. There are still gaps. I would like to see it up and running again for the sake of the people,” he said.

With reporting by Hayley Halpin

Read: Michelle O’Neill says Stormont stalemate talks will conclude next week

Read: Why the ‘cast iron’ guarantee for no hard Brexit border may now be in doubt

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