Sinn Féin’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill has said she believes devolved government in Northern Ireland may be able to be restored within the next number of weeks. Ms O’Neill, who is set to become the first nationalist First Minister when the Assembly returns, was speaking during a visit to Bute House in Edinburgh where she met Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf. While talks continue between the DUP and the UK Government over addressing unionists’ concerns around post-Brexit trading arrangements, Ms O’Neill said she has been kept abreast of developments.
“I’ve been engaged with both the British Government and the Irish government the whole way through,” she said. “I’ve been very clear in terms of what needs to not happen – what needs to not happen is that we need to be ensuring that there’s nothing that does any jeopardy to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and that we need to make sure that there’s nothing that unravels the deal that’s been done on the (Northern Ireland) protocol in the form of the Windsor Framework. “I think that it’s very clear to me that the discussions have been going on for 18 months now. “Now is the time for a decision to be made, and I hope it’s the right decision and I hope it’s a positive decision, and I believe that that decision is imminent.” The DUP has been blocking power sharing at Stormont for more than a year and a half in protest at the internal UK trade barriers created by Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol. The party has been involved in negotiations with the Government about the Windsor Framework, which reformed the protocol and is seeking further assurances, by way of legislation, over Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market. Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has said the talks are in their final phase but DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has cautioned that there are still gaps between their negotiating positions. Pressed on a timeframe for the return of Stormont, Ms O’Neill said: “The British Government and others are saying that we’re at the final stages. “So if that’s the case, then it’s the time for decisions to be made. “And I believe that that is in the timeframe of the next number of weeks. Let’s hope it’s a positive decision. “Let’s hope we can get an executive up and running, let’s hope the DUP end their blockade and get back in around that executive table.” Earlier this week, former DUP leader Peter Robinson said that unionists need to recognise that they will not get all they want from the Government in negotiations. Mr Robinson also said he believed differences could be resolved in the next couple of weeks. However, DUP MP Sammy Wilson responded to Mr Robinson’s comments by stating he “didn’t get the impression” that his party was close to a deal which would restore Stormont. Ms O’Neill was meeting with Mr Yousaf ahead of a British-Irish Council meeting in Dublin later this week. She expressed regret that no Stormont ministers would be at the council meeting due to the powersharing impasse. The Sinn Fein vice-president said: “Let’s hope we can get back to going to meetings such as the British-Irish Council meeting, to raise the issues that we have, the common ground that we have to stand up for good public services and the people that we represent collectively.” Ms O’Neill said it was her first in-person meeting with the Scottish First Minister since he came into the post. “We’ve already (got) strong relationships, always have had, and I want to see that continue in the time ahead,” she said. “I think it was important to meet this week given that later this week, there will be a British Irish Council meeting. “Unfortunately because of the political situation in the north of Ireland, the executive will not be there. “I think that it’s important that we get back to the juncture where we have an Executive up and running, where we have powersharing restored.”
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