The British Direct Ruler James Brokenshire has been urged to give up the chairmanship of the talks at Stormont after the latest round of discussions failed to make any real progress.
Brokenshire has struggled to present himself as an independent chair of the negotiations to nationalists after making a series of offensive political statements in recent months.
His claim to neutrality was further undermined when the British Prime Minister, while addressing the Westminster parliament last week, admitted her government “will never be neutral” on the future of the North of Ireland.
On Wednesday, the Essex man claimed progress had been made on some important issues, but berated Sinn Fein and the other talks participants. Speaking at a photo opportunity at a hospital in Antrim, he said: “We know this cannot carry on for an extended period of time because of the impact on public services like the one I have been seeing today.”
Sinn Fein negotiator Conor Murphy accused the British government of blocking progress in the talks.
“If James Brokenshire wants to ensure public services run smoothly in the north then it’s time he and his government lived up to their responsibilities to implement previous agreements,” he said.
“The British Secretary of State knows what he needs to do to make progress and to date he and his government have not focused on the key issues.”
Mr Murphy added: “Many people will also find James Brokenshire’s concern for public services a bit rich.
“Relentless Tory cuts and austerity policies have taken hundreds of millions of pounds out of public services over the last seven years and the Tories are also pursuing a pro-Brexit agenda which will be disastrous for the people of this island.”
GOOD FRIDAY TARGET DATE
The latest round of ‘extra time’ talks was announced after a legal deadline for calling an election was informally extended by Brokenshire at the end of last month. On Thursday, he announced a new deadline of Easter, with the goal of restoring Stormont if there is agreement by the time Westminster returns from its recess on Tuesday, April 18.
Brokenshire said the British government would consider a return to direct rule if the latest talks failed. Sinn Fein have said if there is no agreement then there will have to be an election.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said engagement in the talks had “ratcheted up significantly”, but added they they were “miles away from any deal”.
Sinn Fein northern leader Michelle O’Neill provided a more stark assessment of the latest round of discussions.
“We have seen no progress to date - nothing that we could report that’s anything significant,” she said.
Ms O’Neill said the main stumbling block in the way of a successful outcome is the refusal of the British government and the DUP to deliver on previous agreements.
She said legacy issues were proving the main sticking point, but that movement was also needed on equality issues. She said a deal to rescue the Stormont institutions was only possible if there was a “step change” in approach.
“We need the Irish government to step up to the plate and the British government to stop pandering to the DUP,” she said.
Speaking as talks concluded for the week, Mr Murphy said they “have all been about process and not about progress.” But he claimed that an agreement could be done on Monday “if there was a political will”.
He added: “All the parties recognised the step change needed here in the political process in terms of how the Executive works, does business and treats society.
“And apart from the DUP and the British Government, everybody else gets it. We need to see that change and agreements made previously implemented.”
Meanwhile, Gerry Adams warned that a new Stormont deal needs clear support from nationalists and republicans in the absence of the late Martin McGuinness.
Reflecting on Mr McGuinness’s passing, Mr Adams said: “I miss him in terms of the daily grind of the work that we’re doing, from 1972 this is the first talks process that he and I haven’t been together.
“But I miss him also at a personal level, deeply so. I reconciled myself to that because I know you have to go through a grieving process.”
The Sinn Fein president said any fresh agreement to restore the Six County administration needs to be “sustainable” following the death of the former deputy first minister, who had been the party’s strongest advocate for power-sharing.
He added: “When you have somebody as big and as strong and formidable as Martin he could carry that to a certain degree for the rest of us. Martin’s gone so even if we were able to cobble something together tomorrow it wouldn’t last so I want it to be sustainable.”