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  1. ITV Report

Fresh negotiations to break Stormont deadlock underway

Northern Ireland has been without a functioning Assembly since 2017. Credit: Presseye

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Fresh talks aimed at restoring the Northern Ireland Assembly are underway in Belfast.

All parties have pledged to get the Executive up and running again after nearly three years of political stalemate.

Secretary of State Julian Smith, who is expected to remain in the position following last Thursday's General Election, is holding meetings on Monday.

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Ahead of the meetings, Mr Smith spoke with all five party leaders by telephone on Sunday morning and later tweeted: "Good calls with all five party leaders this morning. Look forward to starting positive process tomorrow to get Stormont back up and running."

There has been an impasse for more than 1,000 days due to a stand-off between Sinn Féin and the DUP on issues such as Irish language legislation and a ban on same-sex marriage.

Legislation was passed in Westminster in October, legalising abortion and same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.

The DUP has since suffered a considerable blow, after party deputy leader Nigel Dodds lost his seat in north Belfast to Sinn Féin's John Finucane.

Likewise, Sinn Féin lost its seat in Foyle to the SDLP by a huge majority.

They also took a seat from the DUP in South Belfast with Claire Hanna replacing Emma Little-Pengelly.

All leaders of the five main parties spoke with the Secretary of State at the weekend. Credit: UTV

Sinn Féin TD Martin Kenny told Irish state broadcaster RTÉ that his party "absolutely wants to be back in Stormont".

Julian Smith has previously said an election will be called if no agreement is reached by 13 January.

DUP leader Arlene Foster issued a statement on Sunday stating: "We live in a divided society and to move forward will require all the parties to step up to the plate. For my part, we will not be found wanting.

"Northern Ireland can only move forward when we are prepared to work together."

SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood Credit: UTV

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the parties were entering last-chance talks.

"The SDLP has made bold proposals that are uncomfortable for us, but are in the interests of restoring government to meet the needs of patients, pupils and healthcare workers," he said.

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long (right) Credit: UTV

Alliance leader Naomi Long also described the talks as "last-chance".

She said: "The Westminster Election is clear proof people want Stormont to return and want to see a new form of politics.

"We now have a duty to deliver on that. If we don’t, the only losers are going to be the public of Northern Ireland, who elected us to represent them in the first place."

The Ulster Unionist Party have consistently said they want an Executive formed, with leader Steve Aiken stating that direct rule from Westminster should be implemented if talks fail.

He said: "The UK Government must acknowledge the role that they have to play here. They must not think they can simply sit on the sidelines. The health emergency continues and they must not continue to shirk their responsibility to the people of Northern Ireland.

"When I speak to the Secretary of State, I will again be asking that the UK Government take back powers over health until devolution is restored."

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald speaking after a meeting with Julian Smith Credit: UTV

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said there should be no "red lines" in the negotiations.

"It's not helpful in the course of discussions for people to be setting out red lines or talking about red lines," she said.

"That's not how we understand these matters or how we articulate it. These are matters that have to be resolved. And it's not about the political parties, it's about citizens, it's about people in particular who live here in the north.

"At a time of great challenges, because Brexit still looms large, there is an obligation to deliver on issues. So I don't think anybody should be digging themselves into trenches and refusing to acknowledge and to honour other people's rights.

"So, yes, the Irish language is an issue that I believe we can reach agreement, so too the issue of public services. We should never ask people to have to make a choice between those things.

"In any civilised, democratic system you recognise citizens' rights and you also make provision for health, for education and for all the things we rely on in our day-to-day lives."