Efforts to restore Stormont following the Westminster election on December 12 have accelerated despite election campaigning.
On Monday British Direct Ruler Smith welcomed what he termed “commitments” by the DUP and Sinn Féin to hold talks after the December 12 Westminster election. He had said talks should start on December 16, and that unless agreement is reached by January 13, serially postponed Assembly elections would be triggered. That deadline “is real”, he insisted last week.
“Each party had made a commitment to getting back into talks and I think that will happen whatever the situation the week after the election. We can’t let this run and run, we have got to get this sorted.”
Other than the long-delayed report of an inquiry into the corruption scandal which brought down Stormont, the DUP’s refusal to countenance legal protections for Irish language speakers remains the main obstacle in the way of a return to power sharing.
The DUP has said it is only willing to agree “cultural laws” that would include loyalist and Ulster Scots traditions. Foster said her approach was the “right way forward” and reiterated her suggestion to restore the Assembly and set up a “parallel process” to deal with the language issue.
The DUP leader insisted “all roads lead back to devolution” and noted that Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald had signalled a desire to return to Stormont at her recent party conference speech.
“I hope that she does want to see devolution returned because I certainly do,” she said.
There are also concerns among some commentators over a ‘political vacuum’ in the North amid threats of loyalist disturbances against Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. Meetings have been held by the DUP and loyalists over possible new regulations for Larne seaport, which they say are tantamount to an “economic united Ireland”. The Grand Secretary of the Orange Order, Mervyn Gibson, and loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson have both spoken of protests and “civil disobedience”.
Sinn Féin Deputy Leader Michelle O’Neill said her party stands ready to form a “credible, sustainable and inclusive” power-sharing Executive in Belfast.
While unionists are looking to regain their veto at Stormont following the end of nearly three years with the balance of power at Westminster in their hands, Sinn Féin has insisted there will be “no return to the status quo”.
“To be credible all the outstanding issues must be dealt with including an Irish Language Act and reform of the Petition of Concern and we need to tackle the failure by the British government to implement the Stormont House Agreement and deal with the issue of legacy”, said Ms O’Neill.