Northern Ireland

Stormont talks: Sinn Féin proposes resumption date

Michelle O'Neill Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption The next round of talks should be "focused and time-limited", Michelle O'Neill says.

Sinn Féin's northern leader has written to the UK and Irish governments proposing a formal resumption of Northern Ireland power-sharing talks.

Michelle O'Neill suggested parties should be given a tight deadline from next Monday to restore the government.

The Democratic Unionist Party's (DUP) Simon Hamilton described her proposal as a "stunt", saying his party had been ready to form an executive for months.

NI has been without a functioning devolved government since January.

The coalition led by the two biggest parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, collapsed over a green energy scandal.

Formal talks were suspended without agreement at the start of July.

Public appetite for talks?

Mrs O'Neill said the latest round of talks should be "focused and time-limited".

"With limited engagement since the talks concluded on 4 July, I am keen to formally re-engage at the earliest opportunity in order to re-establish an executive and power-sharing institutions on a proper and sustainable footing," she said.

"Moreover, I do not believe there is much public appetite, or need, for another drawn-out phase of talks."

However, Mr Hamilton accused Sinn Féin of holding Northern Ireland to "ransom" over less-than-critical issues on a "political wish-list".

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Simon Hamilton, pictured with DUP leader Arlene Foster, says Sinn Féin is stalling over Stormont's restoration

"The DUP are not saying that we shouldn't be dealing with issues like Irish language, like other cultures as well," said the former economy minister.

"But we should be doing those in parallel with forming a government.

"The DUP would go up to Stormont this morning and form a government to deal with those difficult issues that there are around health, education and the economy, which we believe are more important than the ones that Sinn Féin are stalling the restoration of an executive on."

'Not a stunt'

Mrs O'Neill rejected the accusation that her party was not serious in its call for the resumption of talks.

"It's not a stunt," she said.

"What it clearly is about is trying create a bit of momentum, trying to kick-start a process.

"I have heard James Brokenshire saying that he wants to resume things before the end of the summer, but it needs to happen now."

The Sinn Féin leader was dismissive of a suggestion from Mr Hamilton that talks could be held in parallel to a restored executive.

"What we've had is a failure from the DUP to deliver on people's rights, to deliver what they've previously signed up to, so I don't think it's tenable that you can have an executive while we see those issues outstanding," said Mrs O'Neill.

The most significant sticking points between the two main unionist and nationalist parties are:

  • Disagreements over an Irish language act
  • Same-sex marriage
  • A bill of rights
  • Measures to deal with the legacy of Northern Ireland's Troubles

There is little chance of progress in a new talks process if Sinn Féin approaches it "with their red lines in place", according to Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann.

"In the time since the last process was parked we have continued to engage with civic society," he said.

"It is clear from these meetings that the voluntary and community sector, business, trade unions, student unions, health charities and many more all share our frustration at the lack of progress to date."

'Ghost town'

The SDLP's Claire Hanna said the key to overcoming the sticking points in the talks was the reform the petition of concern - a mechanism intended to protect minority rights in the Assembly that has been used by the bigger parties to block legislation.

"Even if the DUP say - and I don't believe they are going to say - 'we now support gay marriage,' we won't be able to believe it until we see it, so we need to get back into the Assembly," she told BBC Radio Ulster's The Nolan Show..

The Alliance party's Kellie Armstrong said she was disappointed Sinn Féin had only now said it was ready to resume talks.

"We could have been doing this all summer," she said.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The Northern Ireland Executive collapsed amid a bitter row between the DUP and Sinn Féin

She said the smaller parties had been meeting throughout the summer months.

"It's a little cynical now to call for talks to be re-formed - we've been looking for this all summer," she said.

The Green Party's Clare Bailey described Stormont as "a ghost town".

"Since the last election, my office has been empty and a lot of MLAs are the same," she said. "We don't know whether we should move into our offices again."

"It is like a ghost town, the corridors are empty. There's no buzz about the place."

Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said he did not want to see a return to what he described as "pantomime season" at Stormont.

"We need government - if, as is obvious, we can't get it from failed Stormont, then it must be provided from Westminster," he added.

"Turning the key on Stormont may be painful for its payroll hangers-on but, frankly, I'm not sure the public will really notice - has anyone really missed it over the last six months?"

Northern Ireland's institutions collapsed amid a bitter row between the DUP and Sinn Féin over the DUP's handling of an inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal.

In January, the late Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, resigned in protest, triggering a snap election in March.

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