BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) expects formal talks to restore a devolved power-sharing government to resume next week after positive discussions behind the scenes with nationalist rivals Sinn Fein, its leader said on Wednesday.
The two parties have failed to agree on how to reform the devolved administration since its collapse in January, limiting Northern Ireland’s influence in Brexit negotiations that could hurt it more than an other part of the United Kingdom.
Each has blamed the other for missing repeated deadlines and formal talks last broke down in July. Britain’s minister for the region told the parties this week that they were rapidly running out of time to avoid a return of direct rule from London.
“Over this last week or so we’ve been engaging in intensive discussions with Sinn Fein. We thought it was best to do that away from any spotlight,” DUP leader Arlene Foster told Irish national broadcaster RTE.
“Those have been good discussions and I hope that they can pave the way now towards more structured talks that will probably start next week. I still think that there are gaps between us but we’re committed to finding a way forward.”
Sinn Fein has said it requires a full implementation of earlier agreements between the parties, improved rights for Irish language speakers and the legalisation of same-sex marriage before considering returning to the local executive.
An added complication is that Britain’s minority Conservative government is being propped up by a support agreement with the DUP.
Sinn Fein’s Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill said her party was ready to re-engage in formal negotiations immediately.
She welcomed Foster’s recent comments that unionists had nothing to fear from the Irish language but said the DUP had a long way to go in understanding its significance for Irish national identity after one lawmaker described it as a “dead language” on Wednesday.
“The route map to establishing the executive is clear, it’s reasonable and it’s achievable. Implement previous agreements, deliver equality for all and embrace genuine partnership government,” O’Neill said in a speech at a meeting of the party’s members of parliament.
Reporting by Padraic Halpin in Dublin; Editing by Alison Williams