Sinn Fein and DUP continue war of words despite talks with new NI Secretary

Sinn Fein and Democratic Unionists have continued their war of words after discussing the Stormont powersharing crisis with the new Northern Ireland Secretary.

On her first visit to Belfast, Karen Bradley said she wanted to work collaboratively with local parties to forge an agreement that will see a coalition executive resurrected.

But the prospects of an imminent breakthrough looked bleak on Wednesday as DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill appeared in no mood to change their negotiating positions, accusing each other of preventing the restoration of powersharing.

Mrs Bradley’s appointment, following James Brokenshire’s surprise resignation on health grounds, came as Northern Ireland marked a year since the Democratic Unionist/Sinn Fein-led administration imploded in a row over a botched green energy scheme.

The rift between the two main parties has widened in the intervening 12 months to take in long-standing cultural and legacy disputes.

Mrs Foster held face-to-face talks with Mrs Bradley at Stormont House in Belfast while Mrs O’Neill arranged a phone call with the new incumbent at the Northern Ireland Office.

Mrs O’Neill said the DUP leader was not serious about resolving the crisis.

"The call today by the DUP leader for the introduction of Tory direct rule makes clear they have no interest in resolving the issues at the heart of the current crisis and no interest in re-entering powersharing on the basis of equality and respect," she said.

"Martin McGuinness made clear there can be no denial of the rights of citizens and no return to the status quo. The agreements make clear there can be no return to direct rule.

"Sinn Fein is ready to engage in meaningful talks to resolve the issues and re-establish the powersharing institution, however the question is are the DUP serious about partnership government?"

Mrs Foster said if further negotiations failed to deliver a breakthrough then Mrs Bradley had to move to put direct rule ministers in place.

"The clock is ticking in relation to the government of Northern Ireland, we haven’t had a government now for over a year," she said.

"I think she’s (Mrs Bradley) heard directly today from people that they want to see government back here and if it’s not going to be a devolved administration then it will have to be some sort of an administration direct from Westminster.

"Of course we don’t want that - we want devolution, but we can’t continue without a government here in Northern Ireland."

Ahead of her political discussions, Mrs Bradley met students at Belfast’s Metropolitan College in the city’s regenerated docklands area on her first official engagement in the region.

"I want to find a way through this because the absolute priority is to restore devolved government as soon as possible," she said, standing on the Titanic Quarter’s fog-shrouded waterfront.

Asked if she intended to adopt a new approach to the faltering negotiation process, Mrs Bradley stressed she was still in learning mode.

"I am here to learn, I am here to find out, I am here to meet all the leaders, I’m here to look at what needs to be done.

"I know there are challenges but I am determined we will find a way through those challenges.

"We need to deliver devolved government to Northern Ireland as soon as possible and that’s what I am determined to do."

The Conservative MP said she was also conscious of the need to deliver a Brexit that worked for everyone in Northern Ireland.

Mrs Bradley said she understood the importance of dealing with the legacy of the Troubles and ensuring a safe future.

"My aim is to work collaboratively to find solutions to those issues that are acceptable to everyone," she said.

The former culture secretary said the Irish government would have an "important role" to play in efforts to save devolution.

She is due to meet Ireland’s deputy premier and minister for foreign affairs Simon Coveney on Friday.

The appointment of an independent chair or moving the talks venue away from Stormont have been suggested as ways to invigorate the talks process.

Mrs Foster said neither option was going to change the issues that needed to be resolved.

"An independent chair, a different venue isn’t going to change what we have to do here and what we have to do here is get devolution back for the people of Northern Ireland, and I think frankly all the rest is window dressing," she said.

"What we have to do is get down to the serious negotiations to bring about a devolved government here in Northern Ireland."

- David Young, Press Association

 

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