Sinn Fein accused the UK Government of indulging in a sham merry-go-round after a meeting to take stock of Stormont’s powersharing crisis failed to chart a way forward.
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald claimed the roundtable talks involving the five main Stormont parties and UK and Irish governments were only called to give a false impression that Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley was proactively trying to resolve the impasse.
“We are open to any credible proposition to restore powersharing, but what we had today was not that,” Mrs McDonald said after the 90-minute exchanges at Stormont House in Belfast.
Ahead of the meeting, DUP leader Arlene Foster laid the blame for the two-year political deadlock squarely at Sinn Fein’s door, accusing the republican party of holding Northern Ireland to ransom with unreasonable demands.
“I think most people in Northern Ireland want to see us getting back in to deal with all the issues that affect them in their everyday lives, instead of dealing with very narrow sectional issues,” she said.
“Sinn Fein have held Northern Ireland to ransom these past two years, I deeply regret that.”
Friday’s meeting came two years after the last DUP/Sinn Fein-led coalition imploded amid a row over a botched green energy scheme.
The wrangle 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 latest discussions involved Mrs Bradley, Ireland’s deputy premier Tanaiste Simon Coveney and the leaders of the five main parties.
They ended, as expected, without a meeting of minds on any of the outstanding issues.
Mrs McDonald said the two governments had failed to put forward any “credible proposition” to navigate a way of out the impasse.
“It is a disgrace that for two years we have not had our powersharing institutions,” she said.
“We have established again that, without a shadow of doubt, the DUP remains wedded to an agenda of denial of rights.
“We have established that the British Government remains in a position where they are happy to facilitate that veto on rights and we have made very, very clear that any serious attempt to restore the powersharing institutions has to be based on the principles of powersharing and at the core of that is a recognition of people’s rights, at the core of that is a commitment to full powersharing and sustainability.”
Flanked by party colleagues in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings, Mrs McDonald added: “There is a point at which honesty has to enter into the equation and for the Secretary of State to call a meeting to give the impression of action, when in fact the reality is one of inertia, is that helpful?
“We don’t believe that it is. We want more than that.
“There is no appetite to go around on a merry-go-round again in a circular conversation that winds up with the DUP either unable to deliver an accommodation or unwilling to deliver solutions to what are very legitimate asks, made in the spirit of equality and the spirit of powersharing.”
The republican leader continued: “We are open to any credible proposition but we will not participate in anything that amounts to a sham.
“People two years on deserve so much more than that, so much better.”
With the UK Government reluctant to reintroduce direct rule from Westminster, Northern Ireland has operated in a political limbo land for two years, with senior civil servants being left to run public services.
Those civil servants are seriously hamstrung, with ongoing uncertainty over what decisions they are able to make in the absence of elected ministers.
As a consequence, numerous governmental decisions are in abeyance with many major policy initiatives in cold storage.
Mrs Foster called on Sinn Fein to get “serious” about restoring the institutions.
“We need devolution back in Northern Ireland,” she said as she arrived for the talks with party MEP Diane Dodds.
“It should have been back in after March 2017, after that election.
“It didn’t and it’s a source of great frustration at this point, not just for us but for the whole population of Northern Ireland, that we are still talking about talks rather than actually dealing with government issues.”
Mrs Foster reiterated that her party would go back into devolved government immediately, insisting the outstanding political disputes could be resolved in parallel.
Many believe the prospects of an imminent return to powersharing are bleak, with the crisis seemingly in drift as political attention focuses on Brexit.
Mrs Foster said that did not need to be the case, insisting the Brexit process should not be a barrier to restoring powersharing.
“I don’t think Brexit should prevent us from having a government in Northern Ireland,” she said.
“I wish that we had had a government up and running since March 2017, that’s when we should have been back into government, instead, because Sinn Fein has refused to go back in, we have to deal with that.”
The DUP leader expressed hope that there would be a Brexit deal before March 29.
“We want to see a deal in relation to Brexit because we believe a deal that works for the whole United Kingdom and one that deals for the European Union is good for everybody,” she said.
On Brexit, Mrs McDonald said: “Brexit sets the scene and the tone for everything that happens now in Irish politics.
“Here in the North people voted to remain, as Arlene (Foster) is well aware, she defies that democratic decision, she advocates what, in our view, is a very, very reckless position in respect of Brexit.”
- Press Association