Latest: 'Constructive' first meeting in Stormont as fresh talks to restore powersharing in North begin

Update 8.30pm: A first round table meeting of Stormont leaders since the implosion of powersharing was a constructive exchange, Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster has said.

Plenary discussions between the five main leaders did not happen during last month's ill-fated negotiations, primarily due to Sinn Féin resistance to Secretary of State James Brokenshire taking the chair.

The round table in Stormont Castle on the first day of a fresh talks process was chaired by the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service Malcolm McKibbin.

"We had a good constructive meeting of the five party leaders and we are going to build on that and try to get the government up and running as soon as possible," said former first minister Mrs Foster.

She welcomed the fact the talks were "more structured" than March's failed discussions and signalled a deal to save powersharing was possible.

"We don't believe it is a matter of time, it's whether there is a willingness there to deal with the issues and to get the government formed again," she said.

"There is a very short window and we need to get down and deal with the issues."

DUP's Nigel Dodds and leader Arlene Foster. Photos: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Stormont parties missed last week's deadline for forming an executive after negotiations broke down and Sinn Féin said it would not nominate a deputy first minister.

Political leaders were subsequently invited by Mr Brokenshire to participate in a fresh round of talks in a bid to break the deadlock.

Two of the main stumbling blocks to a successful outcome are the divisive issues of Irish language and how to deal with the toxic legacy of the Troubles.

After the first day of engagements, Sinn Féin negotiator John O'Dowd said his party's position had not changed.

Sinn Fein has insisted the logjam centres around non-implementation of previous political agreements.

The legacy mechanisms were outlined in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement while an Irish language act was envisaged in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.

"If we can succeed in the implementation of previous agreements then we can move forward towards the establishment of an executive, to the rebuilding of this place in terms of public confidence," said Mr O'Dowd.

Asked if Sinn Fein was prepared to compromise, Mr O'Dowd said past agreements represented compromise.

"You can't compromise on a compromise," he added.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood struck a positive note about the new process, insisting the opening day was a "step in the right direction".

"The meeting of the five party leaders this afternoon was a constructive beginning to the new phase of the talks," he said.

Sinn Fein's Caoimhe Archibald (left), John O'Dowd (centre) and Alex Maskey (right).

"It's critical that all parties are at the table if we're to create the conditions for forming an inclusive powersharing Executive."

Ulster Unionist negotiator Tom Elliott said his party wanted to make the process work but warned he and his colleagues would not be "taken for granted".

In terms of implementation of previous agreements, he said Sinn Féin had not respected the 1998 Good Friday Agreement position that the North should remain within the UK unless a majority of its citizens decided otherwise.

He said progress was "limited" but the last few days might deliver results.

"The chances of success are possible indeed they could be probable if people want to show some respect for each other and stop drawing red lines and have proper negotiations," he said.

Devolution crashed in January over a row about a botched green energy scheme.

The subsequent snap Assembly election campaign laid bare a series of other disputes between the main two parties - the DUP and Sinn Féin.

The parties missed the three-week post-election deadline to form a new coalition administration last Monday.

While the UK Government is statutorily obliged to call another snap election if such a deadline is missed, Mr Brokenshire has said he believes there is no public appetite to go back to the polls.

Ulster Unionist Party's Mike Nesbitt, Steve Aiken, Tom Elliott and Danny Kennedy.

He has said if an agreement is reached he will move to amend legislation to allow an executive to be formed without the need for an election.

If no deal materialises he has made clear the British Government will countenance the reintroduction of direct rule from London - a step that would also require emergency legislation to be passed.

Mr Brokenshire has signalled April 18 as an effective deadline for progress to be made.

The lack of ruling executive, and agreed budget, at the start of the financial year has forced a senior civil servant to take control of Stormont's finances.

David Sterling, the permanent secretary at the Department of Finance, is using emergency powers to release cash and resources to departments to keep public services operating amid the crisis.

Last month's election was triggered after the late Martin McGuinness quit as Sinn Féin deputy first minister in protest against the DUP's handling of the error-ridden Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

The March 2 poll returned an Assembly shorn of an overall unionist majority for the first time ever, with the DUP's lead over Sinn Féin cut from 10 seats to just one.

On top of legacy and language, another logjam preventing the formation of a new government is Sinn Fein's insistence that it will not accept Mrs Foster as first minister until the conclusion of a public inquiry into the RHI scandal.

Update 1.13pm: Once Stormont's snap election was called, a row about an eco-energy scandal rapidly widened to incorporate a host of unresolved disputes between the DUP and Sinn Fein that follow more familiar orange and green lines.

    Here are some of the obstacles in the way of agreement.

  • Renewable Heat Incentive. While a public inquiry has been called into the financial debacle around Stormont's ill-fated green energy scheme - an initiative that landed the executive with an almost £500 million overspend bill - the issue is still causing political friction. Sinn Fein has repeatedly insisted it will not re-enter a coalition with DUP leader Arlene Foster as first minister until her role in the RHI (she oversaw its inception when economy minister) is investigated. The DUP has branded the Sinn Fein stance as an "unacceptable precondition" and said if republicans want to veto its choice of first minister it would return serve, and block Sinn Fein's choice of deputy first minister. Could a way out see both Mrs Foster and Sinn Fein's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill both nominate party colleagues to fill the respective jobs for an interim period?
  • Irish language. Sinn Fein and the SDLP want legislation to enshrine protections for Irish speakers. The DUP claim new laws, which could potentially include the right for people to have court proceedings heard in Irish, are not only unnecessary but also hugely costly. The issue has become a touchstone for a wider debate on respect for Irish and British cultures in post-conflict Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein accuses the DUP of treating the nationalist tradition with contempt - on the other hand, the main unionist party claims republicans have politicised language for their own ends. With Mrs Foster insisting there would be no Irish Language Act under her watch, room for manoeuvre is limited. Legislation to protect both Irish and Ulster Scots traditions may offer one route to compromise.
  • Legacy. Given their different perspectives on the past, it is notable that quite a lot has already been agreed on how to deal with the toxic legacy of the Troubles. The problem is while a raft of initiatives - including a new investigatory body, a truth recovery mechanism and an oral achieve - have been agreed, they are stuck in the starting blocks due to a small number of discreet impasses. One of the main ones is the thorny issue of national security and republican fears the UK government would cite that as a reason to withhold documents to bereaved families. Claims made by unionists and Tory backbenchers that recent prosecutions of former British soldiers is tantamount to a "witch-hunt" have further complicated the picture. A suggested public consultation exercise on the proposed legacy mechanisms would not fully resolve the issues, but it could move it on enough to give space for an executive to be formed.

Earlier: Talks aimed at restoring the North's powersharing government are due to resume today between political parties.

The parties missed last week's deadline for forming an executive after negotiations broke down and Sinn Féin said it would not nominate a deputy first minister.

However, all parties have been invited by Secretary of State James Brokenshire to participate in another round of talks at Stormont Castle today in a bid to break the deadlock.

The UK and Irish governments have said they want the talks to have an agreed agenda and regular round table meetings.

The two governments have described it as "an intensive process to drive progress".

The main stumbling blocks to a successful outcome to the talks are the divisive issues of legacy and an Irish Language Act.

Mr Brokenshire had warned that if no agreement was reached another snap election may have to be called.

But he told MPs last week that he does not believe there is an appetite to go back to the polls.

He said he does not want to see a return to direct rule from London but has to keep all his options open.

The DUP and Sinn Féin blamed each other for the breakdown in talks.

Due to the lack of agreement between the two largest parties a senior civil servant has had to take control of Stormont's finances.

David Sterling is to use emergency powers to release cash and resources to departments until a new budget is in place.

He said that while the procedures can keep cash flowing to public services it is "not a substitute for a budget agreed by an executive".

The political deadlock came after a snap election on March 2 brought an end to Stormont's unionist majority and the DUP's lead over Sinn Fein was cut from 10 seats to one.

An election was called after Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness quit as deputy first minister in protest against the DUP's handling of a botched green energy scheme.

Sinn Féin insisted it would not accept DUP leader Arlene Foster as first minister until the conclusion of a public inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

KEYWORDS: stormont, north, politics


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