New Northern Ireland talks process to begin on May 7
Prime Minister Theresa May and Taoiseach (Irish PM) Leo Varadkar have issued a joint statement setting up a new talks process aimed at restoring devolution in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley confirmed fresh talks would begin on 7 May.
Earlier this week, the two premiers attended the funeral of Lyra McKee.
At the funeral, priest Fr Martin Magill asked why it had taken her killing to unite politicians in Northern Ireland.
This was followed by a series of calls for a fresh round of talks, aimed at reviving the power-sharing government at Stormont.
Northern Ireland has been without devolution since January 2017 when Sinn Féin collapsed the coalition government in protest at the DUP’s handling of a green energy scandal.
Since then, several rounds of talks aimed at restoring the Northern Ireland Assembly have failed, with the two parties failing to find a compromise on a number of outstanding issues including Irish language rights and the legalisation of same-sex marriage.
In their statement, Mrs May and Mr Varadkar said: “In coming together with other political leaders in St Anne’s Cathedral to pay tribute to Lyra McKee, we gave expression to the clear will and determination of all of the people of these islands to reject violence and to support peace and a better future for everyone in Northern Ireland.”
It added: “The aim of these talks is quickly to re-establish to full operation the democratic institutions of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement – the NI executive, assembly and North-South Ministerial Council – so that they can effectively serve all of the people for the future.”
Successful conclusion may prove tricky
By Gareth Gordon, BBC News NI Political Correspondent
Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley had already said she planned to hold talks about Stormont after the local government elections on 2 May.
But several parties wrote urging her to convene discussions urgently in the wake of the killing of journalist Lyra McKee.
Speaking alongside Mrs Bradley, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said: “The next few days belong to Lyra McKee.”
And there’s no doubt without her death this announcement of a new talks process would not have happened.
Mr Coveney showed his frustration with the Northern Irish parties saying “in my experience it is never the right time” for talks about restoring devolution.
And in no other circumstances would a process be beginning in the three-week run up to what will be a hotly contested European election.
Mr Coveney insisted this process must be different, but what he didn’t tell us was how.
There is no plan for an outside mediator and smaller parties – the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Alliance – will have a bigger told.
The process is to be finished by mid-summer, which Mr Coveney clarified did not mean mid-July (the height of the marching season).
So now the hard part. The DUP and Sinn Féin can come together at a vigil or a funeral. Can they come together again in government?
Maybe, but how they do it is far from clear.
During a joint press conference with Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, Mrs Bradley said Ms McKee’s “tragic death cannot be in vain”.
“All of us must take inspiration from what Lyra achieved in her life and work even harder to make Northern Ireland a brighter, more peaceful and prosperous place for everyone.”
Mrs Bradley added that Fr Magill’s words during Wednesday’s funeral had resonated “across the world.”
Mr Coveney said: “I think what every decent-thinking person in Northern Ireland wants now is to see us take that spark of determination that I think we have all felt in the last few days and to see if we can build a momentum from that to do something real and positive.”
He also confirmed that the British-Irish Council would convene on 8 May, one day after the new talks process begins.
What are the main sticking points in the NI talks?
- Irish language act: Sinn Féin and the DUP were thought to be close to a deal last year, but talks broke down on St Valentine’s Day 2018 due to a disagreement over a “standalone” Irish language act.
- Same-sex marriage: Sinn Féin has campaigned for its legalisation but the DUP remains opposed. The last time MLAs voted on the issue, support for same-sex marriage achieved a narrow majority, but the DUP used a Stormont veto to block any change in the law.
- RHI scandal:Sinn Féin walked out Stormont’s power-sharing government in January 2017 in protest over the DUP’s handling of a green energy initiative known as the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme. Failure to control costs led to a huge projected overspend and the scheme became the subject of a public inquiry which is yet to release its final report.
The council meeting will consider East/West relations, security cooperation, and political stability in Northern Ireland.
The Irish foreign minister added that there was an “urgent” need for the latest negotiations to succeed.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said her party welcomed the new round of negotiations and added that they would “enter into these talks with a willingness to find a solution for everybody in Northern Ireland and to get a balanced deal for all of the people”.
Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill said the new talks would be “a test” but said her party would “not acquiesce in the denial of rights”.
“We have said that in the event of the DUP being unwilling or unable to deliver on the issue of marriage equality; on the issue of language rights; women’s rights; victims’ rights, then the intergovernmental conference should meet and it should actually remove those obstacles and that in itself would pave a way for the institutions to be restored.”
The two governments are to review progress at the end of May.