Talks in limbo after ‘summer drinks reception’ falls flat

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Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill has said British Direct Ruler Karen Bradley has “failed left, right and centre” after politicians in the five main parties were bizarrely invited to a “summer drinks reception” at Stormont. The invitation came as talks Bradley was chairing had stalled and now appear set to be suspended for the summer.

According to British officials, the event was intended to allow politicians the opportunity to socialise alongside the talks. It was due to be held at Stormont House on Tuesday and hosted by Mrs Bradley. It was cancelled when the parties refused to attend.

A British spokesperson said that Mrs Bradley thought the event would be a useful opportunity “to help build relationships ahead of the restoration of the Assembly.”

The UUP, Alliance Party, SDLP and Sinn Féin had all confirmed they would not be attending the event, while the DUP described it as “unhelpful”.

When asked whether her party would be attending the drinks reception on BBC NI’s Sunday Politics, Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill said: “Absolutely not.”

An SDLP spokesperson said: “We’re focused on the talks. The public wants us working to secure a return to government rather than attending drinks receptions.”

The cancellation, which came just 24 hours ahead of the event, is the latest embarrassment for Bradley, whose performance in her post has been criticised and ridiculed.

It comes amid growing speculation that the current talks process is to be parked ahead of the marching season, an annual series of sectarian marches by unionists which often provoke violence and reach a climax in mid-July.

Last week, Alliance leader Naomi Long said that a breakthrough in the negotiations is unlikely, while Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said that the talks appeared to be “stuck in no-man’s land”.

Sinn Féin said any suggestion of a suspension was “just speculation”. Mrs O’Neill said her party had entered the current talks determined to restore the institutions on the basis of the principles of equality and mutual respect.

“Equality isn’t a high bar. It isn’t an extreme demand. It is a baseline for good governance,” she said.

Working groups chaired by civil servants have discussed a number of issues relevant to functioning institutions, but Mrs O’Neill said they hadn’t addressed the core rights issues at the heart of the current impasse.

“Rights that are denied here but taken for granted in Dublin, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London. Rights that threaten no-one and protect us all,” she said.

“As the co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement it is the duty of the two governments to uphold its principles of equality and mutual respect.

“Equality is not something that can be gifted or negotiated. The rights and identity of Irish and British citizens must both be protected. That is what equality looks like. It threatens no one and protects us all.

“A new Assembly and new kind of politics is possible. In my view it should be inclusive and an equal partnership coalition government. And never again can we see scandals and unethical behaviour at the heart of government.”

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