Talks bid to restore powersharing

Parliament Buildings, Stormont
Parliament Buildings, Stormont
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A fresh bid to restore powersharing in Northern Ireland will get under way later.

The UK and Irish governments have convened a new talks process to try to break the logjam that has left the region without a properly functioning government for over two years.

Leaders of the five main parties have been invited to Stormont House - the UK Government’s base on the Stormont estate in Belfast - for an opening meeting on Tuesday afternoon.

Substantive negotiations are unlikely to take place on Tuesday, with the initial exchanges instead focusing on how the process will run in the days and weeks ahead.

Efforts to resurrect the devolved institutions have been injected with fresh urgency following the dissident republican murder of journalist Lyra McKee in Londonderry last month.

Politicians are facing mounting public pressure to find consensus amid concern the violent extremists are exploiting the power vacuum.

Last week’s local council elections recorded a surge in support for middle ground parties such as Alliance, with many interpreting the result as a sign of growing disaffection at the polarised Stormont stand-off.

While the DUP and Sinn Fein failed to make the gains at council level that some predicted, they remain the region’s two pre-eminent political forces and the fate of the Stormont talks is still in their hands.

The last DUP/Sinn Fein-led powersharing coalition imploded in January 2017 when the late Martin McGuinness quit as Sinn Fein deputy first minister amid a row about a botched green energy scheme.

The fallout over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was soon overtaken by disputes over the Irish language, the region’s ban on same-sex marriage and the toxic legacy of the Troubles.

A number of attempts to find a negotiated deal to restore the institutions have ended in failure. The last process broke down in acrimony last February with claim and counter-claim on what had been agreed.

Sinn Fein said DUP leader Arlene Foster had agreed a draft deal to re-enter devolved government that included concessions on the Irish language - a claim Mrs Foster denied.

Many of the disputes are linked to a controversial voting mechanism that enables blocs of unionists and nationalists to veto measures which command overall majority support in the Assembly.

A number of the smaller parties are calling for changes to the contentious petition of concern, believing its reform could unlock several logjams at the heart of Stormont’s impasse.

With the UK Government reluctant to reintroduce direct rule from Westminster, Northern Ireland has operated in a political limbo for the last two years, with senior civil servants being left to run public services.

Those civil servants are seriously hamstrung, unable to make key policy decisions in the absence of elected ministers.

As a consequence, numerous governmental decisions are in abeyance with many major policy initiatives in cold storage.