Theresa May is travelling to Northern Ireland on Monday, raising expectations that the region’s power-sharing executive could soon be restored. The Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will also travel to the region.
Talks resumed in mid-January to break a year-long political standoff after the power-sharing collapsed over a public spending scandal. Successive efforts to settle the row ended in failure, undermining the Good Friday peace pact of 1998 and leaving Northern Ireland without a formal voice in Brexit talks that will have a critical bearing on the region’s future.
Last month the new UK secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, said that there was “one last opportunity” for agreement, before London restored direct rule.
The last round of talks, in December, were said to be close to an agreement, with the status of the Irish language remaining a point of division. Mrs May has previously met the parties at Downing Street, but has been criticised for not being more closely involved with negotiations.
Dublin said Mr Varadkar will use his visit to “to encourage the parties to reach an agreement” so functioning institutions can commence work again at Stormont.
One official close to the talks said engagements over the weekend went well, with little by way of triumphalism at a special Sinn Féin conference when Mary Lou McDonald took over the party leadership from Gerry Adams.
While it was accepted that Mrs May and Mr Varadkar would be unlikely to travel if a deal was not within grasp, the official said there was still some uncertainty over the stance of the Democratic Unionists and its efforts to secure grassroots party support for a deal.
“The parties reported progress last week and the works has continued late into the evenings and over the weekend,” said a spokesman for Simon Coveney, Ireland’s deputy premier,
“The restoration of the institutions is vital to give the people of Northern Ireland full representation.”
UK ministerial statements since Northern Ireland’s election in March 2017:
- March 2017: “We’re now entering the final few days available to the political parties here in Northern Ireland to form an executive… But time is short.”
- April 2017: Deadline extended. “The parties will have a final opportunity after Easter to reach agreement.”
- June 2017: Deadline passes; “a resolution can be found”.
- July 2017: “Time is short…This hiatus cannot simply continue for much longer.”
- August 2017: “Urgent progress is required.”
- September 2017: “The situation simply is not sustainable.”
- October 2017: “Time is running out.”
- November 2017: Deadline for budget agreement passes.
- January 2018: “One last opportunity to reach agreement remains.”
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