Optimism urged for new talks process

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Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has said she believes an agreement can be reached after round-table five-party talks began in Belfast this week for the first time in more than a year.

The wide-ranging talks were kickstarted as a result of a public outcry over the death of journalist Lyra McKee during a riot in Derry last month.

“We need agreement and all-party power-sharing institutions back in place,” Ms McDonald said. “The two governments are not spectators or referees in this process, they are co-equal guarantors of the people’s agreements and rights.”

The last DUP/Sinn Féin powersharing coalition collapsed in January 2017 when the late Martin McGuinness quit amid allegations of DUP corruption in a ‘green energy’ scheme. It had followed a long-standing impasse at Stormont over the Irish language, same-sex marriage and the legacy of the conflict. A veto mechanism used by the DUP to block political change since 2007, known as a petition of concern, is among the issues the current talks will look at.

It is not yet clear if Sinn Féin will seek to resurrect a deal which DUP leader Arlene Foster was understood to have agreed last year. A copy of the draft deal, which included concessions on both sides, was refuted by the DUP, triggering the current stalemate.

Ms McDonald said actions of the British government -- their deal with the DUP, Brexit and their refusal to honour their obligations on the legacy issues of the past -- had dogged the process since 2017. She said she would be raising them directly with the British Prime Minister on Monday. But she added: “I believe an agreement can be reached and genuine power-sharing can be established.”

Ms McDonald said her party was ready to “do the business”.

“The current stalemate is not acceptable and not sustainable, there are outstanding issues that need to be resolved, and we believe they can be resolved,” she said.

In a joint statement, the Dublin and London governments said party leaders will meet at least once a week to assess progress, while the process will be reviewed by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British Prime MInister Theresa May at the end of the month.

The fresh talks do not as yet include an independent chair, which was previously demanded by nationalists.

The issue of ongoing violence in the North is notably not on the agenda for the talks, which are focused on restoring the Six-County Assembly at Stormont. However, the British government separately announced more than £100m in funding for Derry. The funds are intended to tackle “deprivation and youth unemployment”, and are in addition to £350m already pledged to Belfast.

After the initial discussions, DUP leader Arlene Foster described the engagement as a “good first meeting”.

“It has to of course be a balanced way forward and one that everyone in Northern Ireland is comfortable with, whether they are unionist, nationalist or indeed other – and I think that’s very important,” she said.

Sinn Féin urged optimism as the process got underway.

“We will go into these talks with hope and positivity,” Ms McDonald said. “We will also go in with our eyes wide open, because we have been to his place before. Whatever happens, we’re very clear that the current political stalemate cannot continue. It’s simply unacceptable at this stage.

“In the event that we cannot resolve the equality issues, that the DUP cannot join with us to hard-wire equality into the system of governance . . . in those circumstances then the two governments will have to intervene,” Ms McDonald said.

Sinn Féin negotiator Conor Murphy said his party would expect delivery of assurances it received last year that the British government would pass the necessary legislation if Stormont failed to do so.

But Mr Murphy’s idea that if the five-party talks fail, the Tories should directly legislate for nationalist demands was described as “running to Westminster” by newly elected Aontú councillor in Derry, Dr Anne McCloskey.

“For a republican, who avows that the British government should not by right have any authority in this country... to boast that his [British friends] will keep him and his party sweet on this or any other issue is Alice in Wonderland stuff,” she said.

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