Political leaders in Northern Ireland have begun talks in a fresh bid to restore powersharing.
The UK and Irish governments called the new talks process to try to break the logjam that has left the region without a properly functioning government for more than two years.
Arriving at Stormont House in Belfast for the opening meeting on Tuesday afternoon, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said her party was there to “do the business”.
“The current stalemate is not acceptable and not sustainable, there are outstanding issues that need to be resolved, and we believe they can be resolved,” she said.
“If everybody is prepared to show leadership, if everybody is prepared to respect the clear public desire for equality and people’s rights to be recognised and delivered on, we can find our way back to powersharing.”
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.
Flanked by party colleagues outside Stormont House, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood warned that the new talks could not be “privatised” into bilateral negotiations confined to the two largest parties.
“I think the mistake has been made over the last couple of years that this process has been privatised between the DUP and Sinn Fein,” he said.
“The strategies that have been employed by those two parties up to now haven’t worked, so I think it’s time for a re-think.”
He said politicians on the campaign trail for the local and European elections had heard a stark message from the voters.
“I think any of us who have been knocking doors over the last few weeks, and some of us have more doors to knock, will understand what the public are saying,” he said.
“Yes, they have strong views on all the big issues, but they also want us to deal with the issues in the health service, the education system, Brexit, the economy, and they want us to do it in government.
“None of those things will be solved by standing outside and shouting at each other, so this is an opportunity for those of us in these talks to listen to what the public have told us. I think they want us to get back to work, to come back together, to remember the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.”
Arriving at the talks venue, Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said the process must not be just “window dressing”.
“What we need to actually get to this set of talks is to sort out a governance structure that doesn’t give a veto to one party that can simply crash democracy in Northern Ireland because of their will,” he said.
“I think today is a start of what we’ll see for the rest of this talks process. If today is simply window dressing then we’re wasting our time and insulting the people of Northern Ireland; if this is simply five parties sitting round a table again to re-establish red lines, we’ve let the people of Northern Ireland down, and if those parties who come in with red lines established are sticking by them, then they are letting the people of Northern Ireland down.”
The DUP and Alliance Party, the other local participants in the meeting, did not speak to the media outside Stormont House prior to the meeting.
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 concerns 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.
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.