MLAs return to uncertain future at Stormont

Alliances Stewart Dickson, Stephen Farry and Kellie Armstrong. As the parties began to arrive back at Stormont, Mr Farry said that the bitterness between Sinn Fein and the DUP was at an extreme level
Alliances Stewart Dickson, Stephen Farry and Kellie Armstrong. As the parties began to arrive back at Stormont, Mr Farry said that the bitterness between Sinn Fein and the DUP was at an extreme level

Talks are now under way to try and resurrect the government of Northern Ireland – although details of what precisely is under discussion remain unclear.

The parties returned to Stormont for the first time since the election on Monday in order to begin forging some kind of deal to save devolution, with Sinn Fein’s northern leader Michelle O’Neill announcing that the results – which have deprived unionists of their Assembly majority for the first time – mean it is no longer “business as usual”.

Tom Elliott (front left), next to now-resigned party leader Mike Nesbitt (front right), stand at the head of a UUP group at Parliament Buildings. Mr Elliott has said that it is too early to say if the Ulster Unionists could re-enter any Executive, after having left to head up a bloc of opposition parties last year

Tom Elliott (front left), next to now-resigned party leader Mike Nesbitt (front right), stand at the head of a UUP group at Parliament Buildings. Mr Elliott has said that it is too early to say if the Ulster Unionists could re-enter any Executive, after having left to head up a bloc of opposition parties last year

The prospect of direct rule from London looms if no agreement can be reached in the weeks ahead.

Speaking next to the statue of Edward Carson in front of Parliament Buildings, DUP leader Arlene Foster – alongside party deputy Nigel Dodds – told reporters she was entering negotiations “wanting to promote unionism, wanting to promote the union”.

A statement at the end of the afternoon from her party gave next to no information about the day’s proceedings.

Amounting to 17 words, it said: “The DUP met with a Sinn Fein delegation this afternoon and we agreed to meet again tomorrow.”

Meanwhile Sinn Fein issued two different tough-talking statements to the press; one demanding “genuine power sharing and partnership with republicans”, and another attacking the UK government for what it claimed was its “belligerent approach”.

As for the other smaller parties, the UUP’s Tom Elliott said the Ulster Unionists met with the Secretary of State on Monday and “put some suggestions” to him – but would not reveal what they were.

When it comes to whether the UUP could conceivably re-enter government, he said: “That’s too early to say that.”

Ultimately, it was a “matter for our party executive”.

He remained confident some kind of deal will be done, adding: “I’m not so sure there’s a major chance of [direct rule] occurring.”

The Alliance Party’s Stephen Farry meanwhile said that the “bitterness” between Sinn Fein and the DUP now appeared to be “more extreme than it has been in quite some time”.

On Friday, ex-Alliance leader David Ford had told the News Letter that the party could potentially decide to take on the mantle of the justice ministry in this new mandate, after having abandoned it last time.

The BBC quoted SDLP leader Colum Eastwood as saying he opposed the appointment of Arlene Foster to the First Minister’s position whilst a “cloud of scandal” continues; a reference to the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, and the public inquiry into it.

Sinn Fein has likewise opposed her re-appointment for the same reason.

In the first of two Sinn Fein statements, Michelle O’Neill said: “Political unionism must now live up to its responsibility to share power on the basis of equality, to demonstrate respect and to act with integrity in government.

“What is required is genuine power sharing and partnership with republicans, based on equality and respect and mutual respect for our Irish national identity.”

About an hour later, Gerry Adams issued a statement questioning the role of the UK government in overseeing any talks, saying: “The British government has consistently refused to implement the agreements, have sought to impose Brexit against the will of the people and the best interests of the economy.

“They have sought a special deal to ensure that no British soldier and their agents can be held to account for their action during the conflict”.

He also lashed out at the Irish government, claiming that it was “turning a blind eye to the belligerent approach of the British government”.

He added: “Sinn Fein has demonstrated our patience and generosity, we want the institutions up and running on the basis of equality and respect, and for the outstanding agreements to be implemented in full.”

TUV leader Jim Allister questioned why unionists are taking part in the Assembly at all, asking whether “retaining Stormont is in the best interests of the Union, particularly as the ongoing price will be meeting the insatiable demands of Sinn Fein”.

As it now stands, the DUP have 28 out of the 90 seats, Sinn Fein 27, SDLP 12, UUP 10, Alliance eight, and others five (including two unionists).