Karen Bradley says fresh Stormont talks are ‘last opportunity’ to break deadlock
Karen Bradley has said a new round of Stormont talks set to take place next week mark the “the last opportunity” to get the Northern Irish executive up and running again.
The new Northern Ireland Secretary said party leaders in the province will meet with British and Irish officials on Wednesday in a “short and intense” session as they try to avoid a return to direct rule.
The region has been without an assembly for the last year after Sinn Féin pulled out of a power-sharing arrangement with the DUP over a renewable heating scandal.
Ms Bradley said despite months of failing talks and passed deadlines, she was hopeful the parties could capitalise on the progress that had been made.
“What has quickly become clear to me is that time is short and one last opportunity to reach agreement remains,” she said in a joint press conference with Irish Tánaiste Simon Coveney.
“Without agreement we will be facing a set of political consequences that will represent a significant setback to the progress that has been made since the signing of the Belfast agreement in 1998.”
The minister added that there remained “significant differences to overcome”, but that it would be “possible to reach agreement” after parties had shown they were “willing to engage”.
However she added that “progress must be swift” or UK ministers will be forced to take control of issues such as the devolved budget, MLA pay and whether to call a fresh election.
“It is clear that Northern Ireland needs strong devolved government and political leadership," she added.
“The people of Northern Ireland cannot continue to have their public services suffer by the lack of an executive and without ministers making the key policy and budget decisions.
“Without an executive, Northern Ireland’s voice on critical issues will not be heard as strongly.”
“Without rapid progress, the UK government will face significant decisions, including setting a budget, MLA pay and the prospect of further election, which I continue to keep under review.”
Ms Bradley said she would update MPs on the outcome of the discussions “no later than 7 February".
Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Smith said there was “widespread scepticism” that the scheduled talks would be fruitful.
“Karen Bradley must show that she has a clear plan to rebuild trust between the parties and restore power-sharing," he added.
“This should start with enlisting an independent chair to help address concerns that she cannot be neutral given the Conservative Government is being propped up by the DUP.”