Talks to be ‘suspended over summer’

Stormont has been operating without a budget since March
Stormont has been operating without a budget since March

Powersharing talks in Northern Ireland look set to be parked for the summer, with Sinn Fein acknowledging a deal will not materialise before the autumn.

Party sources said they expect the UK and Irish governments to suspend the negotiations, potentially later today, with the aim of restarting the process in a number of months.

Discussions continued inside Stormont Castle on Tuesday, but no substantive progress was made.

The Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, the two parties whose sign-off is required to form a devolved government, remain at loggerheads over a range of issues.

Sticking points include the shape of legislation to protect Irish language speakers, the DUP’s opposition to lifting the region’s ban on same-sex marriage, and mechanisms to deal with the legacy of the Troubles.

Earlier, Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney said if a breakthrough did not come on Tuesday then one would not be forthcoming on this side of the summer recess.

While MLAs have not been sitting in Parliament Buildings since March’s snap election, the Assembly’s official summer recess starts on Friday.

Next week will also witness the “Twelfth of July” - the key fixture in the Protestant loyal order marching season.

Negotiations were always unlikely to succeed if they stretched into mid-July, when they would be framed against the backdrop of the heightened community tensions that traditionally surround the Orange Order commemorations.

On Monday, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire said he felt a powersharing executive could still be established this week.

His optimism was not shared by the parties at Stormont, with the DUP and Sinn Fein continuing to blame each other for the impasse.

DUP leader Arlene Foster has claimed Sinn Fein is more concerned with adding to its “shopping list” of demands rather than seeking compromises to restore powersharing.

Responding on Monday, Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill insisted all her party was seeking was “basic rights”.

“If that’s a shopping list then I am very proud of that shopping list - because it’s about delivering people their rights,” she said.

The devolved institutions imploded in January when Mrs Foster was forced from office after Sinn Fein’s then deputy first minister, the late Martin McGuinness, quit.

That was in protest at the DUP’s handling of the renewable heat incentive (RHI), a botched scheme that left the administration facing a £490 million overspend.

Mr McGuinness’s move triggered March’s snap Assembly poll and subsequent months of faltering negotiations to restore a devolved government.

Prime Minister Theresa May gave senior colleagues an update on the talks at the regular weekly meeting of Cabinet at 10 Downing Street.

Mrs May’s spokesman told reporters that the PM said that “while progress had been made, gaps between the parties still remain”.

Following calls from Labour for Mrs May to travel to Belfast to help find a resolution, the PM’s spokesman said: “The Prime Minister spoke with five parties and invited them to Downing Street. She has talked with the leaders of the DUP and Sinn Fein at the weekend. We continue to hope to make progress.

“The PM updated Cabinet today, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is there today. The Prime Minister has been closely involved so far and will continue to be so.”

Asked if Mrs May felt Mr Brokenshire was doing a good job, the spokesman said: “Of course. He has been working constantly since the elections in Northern Ireland to try to help secure an agreement to restore the devolved assembly. He has been working constantly and is doing a good job.”

The spokesman confirmed that if a settlement is reached, legislation will be needed for it to allow the executive to be restored, as the statutory deadline for agreement has now been passed.

“The statutory deadline has been missed, but we still believe that a resolution can be found and we are urging the parties to continue focusing all their efforts on achieving this,” said the PM’s spokesman.