Just 10 days into her new role, new Secretary of State Karen Bradley has called a new brief round of all-party talks with a “last” deadline for the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland.
Speaking to journalists at Stormont House alongside Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, Mrs Bradley said that “time is short and one last opportunity to reach agreement remains”.
Sinn Fein said that it understood that Mrs Bradley – whose predecessor, James Brokenshire, saw his credibility shredded by repeatedly setting deadlines and allowing the parties to ignore them – was setting a two-week deadline for the process.
Northern Ireland has been without a government for almost a year, with civil servants running public services without democratic oversight.
Unlike last year’s talks, this process will involve the five parties who potentially could be in a new Stormont Executive – not just the DUP and Sinn Fein.
However, the smaller parties have no ability to either block the formation of a new Executive or to form their own administration. Under Stormont’s convoluted rules, it is only the two largest parties which enjoy the power to effectively veto the return of devolution, and it is one of those parties, Sinn Fein, which is currently exercising that power because it argues that the DUP has not implemented past agreements on issues such as an Irish language act.
Mrs Bradley said that the “short, intense set of political talks to restore the Executive” will begin next Wednesday, stressing that “progress must be swift”.
The secretary of state said that she would be updating Parliament on progress no later than two weeks after the talks begin.
In comments which hinted at the potential for either a return to direct rule – something Mrs Bradley declined to consider when questioned – or yet another election, she warned: “Without rapid progress, the UK government will face significant decisions.
“These include setting a budget for 2018/19, the future of MLA pay, the prospect of a further election – which I continue to keep under review – and ultimately other arrangements to ensure that Northern Ireland is able to benefit from the good government that its people both need and deserve.
“My clear focus now, however, must be to see devolution restored, an Executive established and the progress that Northern Ireland has made over the past two decades continue.”
Mr Coveney said all parties were “very conscious of the time pressures”.
“I think we are talking about weeks rather than months here,” the tanaiste said.
“The pressures have been building for some months now in the context of decisions that need political input from a devolved government here in Northern Ireland that can’t be made in the absence of the being possible.”
Sinn Fein, which had previously indiciated that it would not take part in a new talks process unless there were fundamental changes, confirmed that it would take part in the new initiative, even though Mrs Bradley did not announce an independent chairperson, something republicans and some other parties had called for.
The party’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said the anticipated timeframe for the negotiations was two weeks.
“We are determined to find a resolution that sees the institutions restored and delivering rights for all citizens,” she said.
“Credible, sustainable institutions can only be based on equality, respect and genuine partnership government.
“These talks will be a test of whether the British government and the DUP are finally willing to endorse these basic principles.”
Former DUP minister Simon Hamilton said he believed new talks would help the parties “build on progress that has been built to date”.
The Strangford MLA said: “While I am reluctant to talk about deadlines, it is more than apparent that time is short.”