Sinn Fein has said it will be insisting on the implementation of previous peace deals in talks which are set to go on at Stormont after a deadline for agreement was extended by the British government.
Announcing the move, British Direct Ruler James Brokenshire said there is “no appetite for another election”. Negotiations collapsed on Sunday after this month’s snap election, ahead of Monday’s 4pm deadline.
Legislation required that a new election be called, but Brokenshire instead moved to informally extend the talks to open a “short window of opportunity” to strike a deal. He said he will “consider all options” after Easter if talks to restore the Six County Executive fail.
So far, under Brokenshire’s chairmanship, round-table talks have not yet been held, although a new talks effort was announced by the British Direct Ruler on Friday evening. He said the talks would have two objectives: “First, to secure a coalition agreement to form the basis of the formation of a new Executive. Second, to address the implementation of outstanding issues from previous Agreements.”
Among other issues, Sinn Fein wants to see the implementation of legislation to give official status to the Irish language, a bill of rights and a way forward on dealing with legacy truth and justice issues arising from the conflict.
As the deadline passed for the parties to reach agreement on a deal to save Stormont, a protest took place outside the Assembly in support of the implementation of the Irish Language Act, previously agreed to in 2006.
Organised by campaign group An Dream Dearg, protesters again repeated a call for parties not to sign up to any agreement to restore power-sharing which does not include protections for rights and entitlements of Irish speakers.
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill said the talks collapsed this week because the DUP did not have “the right attitude” when it failed to turn up for talks. The DUP claimed it does not engage in talks on Sundays for religious reasons, although Sinn Fein refuted this.
“We are standing firm - previous agreements need to be implemented,” Ms O’Neill said. “We came at the negotiations with the right attitude, wanting to make the institutions work, wanting to deliver for all citizens.
“Unfortunately, the DUP maintained their position in relation to blocking equality, delivery of equality for citizens - that was the problem.”
She said Brokenshire had “only one option” to take if the talks fail, and that is to call an election.
“There is no legal basis for any other course of action,” she said.
She pointed out that the implied British threat of a return to full direct rule from London would be a breach of the 2006 St Andrew’s Agreement.
“Sinn Fein has made it clear that all of the outstanding issues can be resolved. There can be no return to the status quo,” she said.
The Democratic Unionist Party, meanwhile, claimed Sinn Fein had lost interest in restoring Stormont. The DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said the party’s “main ambitions lie southwards” amid a new push for a united Ireland. DUP leader Arlene Foster also claimed “there wasn’t a recognition of everyone’s mandates”.
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly denied the DUP claims. “No-one has worked harder than ourselves to try and get these institutions to work,” he said. “But, they have to work on the basis of equality and on the basis of respect and that has not been there.”
Sinn Fein’s Newry and Armagh representative Conor Murphy said the British government was “kicking this can down the road forever”.
He also pointed to legacy issue as a major stumbling block: “There are families out there waiting 45 years for access to justice. The British government cannot continue to deny them access to justice.”
Ulster Unionist Party MP Tom Elliott said the talks process was “shambolic” and accused Brokenshire of letting them “drift along”.
Addressing MPs in Westminster this week, the beleaguered Northern Secretary made clear the British government would consider direct rule if the talks fail, regardless of previous agreement.
“In the absence of devolved government, it is ultimately for the United Kingdom Government to provide for political stability and good governance,” he told the House of Commons. “We do not want to see a return to Direct Rule... but should the talks fail in their objectives, the Government will have to consider all options.”
Gerry Adams said any move by the British government to restore direct rule would be an “act of enormous bad faith”.
“For our part, Sinn Fein wants to see the institutions up and working for everyone - we are not looking for any special favours or privileges for anyone,” the SF leader said.
“The terms for the re-establishment of the institutions are clear. They threaten no one.”