A spokesperson for UK Prime Minister Theresa May said on June 14 that Northern Ireland’s five main political parties have been invited to Downing Street on June 15 for talks on restoring devolved government in the country.
Downing St confirms Northern Ireland's five main parties have been invited to meet the PM tomorrow – focus on restoring devolved government.
— Heather Stewart (@GuardianHeather) June 14, 2017
Representatives of the Democratic Unionist Party, Ulster Unionist Party, Sinn Féin, Social Democratic and Labour Party and Alliance are expected to attend.
Secretary of State James Brokenshire said he will also be in attendance.
Talks to form a new Northern Ireland Executive have been ongoing since the March 2 Assembly elections. The Executive is formed by mandatory coalition of the two largest parties, the DUP which won 28 seats and Sinn Féin which won 27.
May’s Conservative Party have been holding discussions with the DUP, since the June 9 UK general election ended in a hung parliament. The parties aim to sign a “confidence and supply” deal to ensure May has a majority in the House of Commons.
There have been concerns about the Conservative/DUP deal, mainly over the role of the UK government in the talks to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland.
My understanding the chances of an agreement between the DUP and Conservatives this week are highly unlikely.
— Ken Reid (@KenReid_utv) June 14, 2017
The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement signed by both governments, overwhelmingly approved by the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum and endorsed by most political parties, but not the DUP, says “the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions.”
Critics say that any deal between the two parties risks further the perception that the Conservative government will not be seen as an honest, impartial broker in negotiations.
Before the general election, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire was already under fire from nationalists for a lack of impartiality, leading to Northern Ireland’s most senior civil servant, Sir Malcolm McKibbin, taking over the chair.
In a move perhaps designed to alleviate these concerns, David Sterling was on June 14 confirmed as interim head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service to allow outgoing head Sir Malcolm McKibbin to take an “enhanced” role in chairing cross-party discussions.
David Sterling made interim head of NI Civil Service to allow retiring head Sir Malcolm McKibbin take enhanced role chairing Stormont talks.
— David Young (@DavidYoungPA) June 14, 2017
McKibbin is due to retire on June 30, the day after the Jun 29 deadline to restore devolution. If the parties cannot agree a mandatory coalition government, Brokenshire must call fresh elections.
Both of Northern Ireland’s Irish nationalist parties have called for an independent chair for the talks, and Alliance party leader Naomi Long said of the Conservative-DUP deal on June 9 that “there is now no credibility for the Tory government to be an independent chair.”
However, on June 13, Robin Swann, leader of the UUP said that “any futile pursuit of an independent chair will only hinder progress being made before the June 29 deadline.”
Sinn Féin’s leader in the north Michelle O’Neill will be joined by party president Gerry Adams. In a statement, O’Neill said: “I will be making it very clear that any deal between the Tories and the DUP cannot be allowed to undermine the Good Friday and subsequent agreements.”
O’Neill will also meet the new Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Dublin on Friday.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the party was “clear that any deal struck must not hinder cross-community confidence in our politics.”
“The context in which the talks process is now being asked to operate in could have very serious consequences if there is any suggestion of a back room deal with the DUP. We will be asking the Prime Minister to be open with politicians and also with the public,” Eastwood said.