Talks on restoring Northern Ireland government set for December 16

By Ian Graham
Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith is seen outside Downing Street in London

By Ian Graham

BELFAST (Reuters) - A fresh drive to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland will be launched immediately after the UK General Election, it was announced on Wednesday.

Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith said he had set December 16 for the start of a new round of inter-party talks whatever the result of the election.

The British-run province has been without a devolved executive for almost three years since it collapsed amid a row over a botched renewable heating scheme.

Speaking at the launch of the Conservative Northern Ireland manifesto, where Boris Johnson's Conservative party have four candidates running, he said with a bit of Christmas spirit a deal can be reached before the festivities.

The current deadline to  restore the power sharing administration is January 13, 2020 and, if that is not met, the government is legally required to call another assembly election. 

The deadline has twice been extended since Stormont collapsed in January 2017. But Mr Smith said he did not see "any appetite" at Westminster for a further extension.

Smith said there was a deal "raring to go" but it required political will among the local parties.

He said each party had "made a commitment to getting back into talks. We can't let this run and run, we have got to get this sorted. The number of issues is relatively small".

The main Northern Irish parties, the Democratic Unionists and nationalist Sinn Fein, said they were ready to attend despite no apparent change in their positions that have prevented the re-establishment of a local administration for over 1,000 days.

Sinn Fein's leader in Northern Ireland, party Vice President Michelle O'Neill, said "any restoration must ensure the Assembly is sustainable, credible and has the confidence of the public. The key to any agreement is resolving the outstanding issues which lie at the heart  of the talks".

The DUP's Gavin Robinson, who is fighting to retain his Westminster seat in East Belfast, said O'Neill should "lead her team back into the Assembly where decisions can be made", rather than "taking selfies on picket lines" outside hospitals where staff are engaged in industrial action.

"A restored Assembly could deliver a pay increase for hardworking staff in our hospitals," he said and a health minister could address the shortages of doctors and nurses.

(Reporting by Ian Graham; Editing by Graham Fahy and Alexandra Hudson)