Irish PM downbeat on chances of end to Northern Ireland political stalemate

By Amanda Ferguson

BELFAST (Reuters) – Confidence is waning among politicians in Northern Ireland about whether it will be possible to end a political stalemate and restore the region’s powersharing government, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said on a visit to Belfast on Monday.

The devolved regional government was a centrepiece of Northern Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, which largely ended three decades of violence between Irish nationalist militants seeking a united Ireland, pro-British “loyalist” paramilitaries and the British military.

Around 3,600 people were killed during the conflict.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) collapsed the devolved executive more than 18 months ago in protest at Britain’s first post-Brexit agreement with the EU, saying it undermined Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. It also rejected a fresh deal struck in February to end many of the new trade checks.

London pledged to introduce laws to placate the DUP, but has yet to table any proposals after months of talks.

“If it is advancing at all, it is advancing at a snail’s pace,” Varadkar told reporters.

“I know from talking to all five major parties here, confidence is starting to wane as to whether it is going to be possible to get the assembly and executive back up and running. I’m worried about that and I’m certainly not giving up.”

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said in early August that he hoped to receive a “definitive” response from the British government on its concerns over the trade rules within weeks.

Britain’s Northern Ireland minister Chris Heaton-Harris, who met Varakdar in Belfast on Monday, said the talks with the DUP were ongoing and “inching forward”, but that he could not put a timeline on any conclusion.

Varadkar reiterated that London and Dublin would need to look at alternative ways of running Northern Ireland that adhere to the terms of the 1998 peace deal if the devolved institutions cannot be restored soon.

Heaton-Harris said talk of a Plan B was unhelpful.

“I think devolution can be restored,” he said.

Varadkar and Heaton-Harris were speaking at the launch of a 1.1 billion euro ($1.18 billion) joint EU, UK and Ireland funding programme for projects that support peace in Northern Ireland.

($1 = 0.9321 euros)

(Writing by Padraic Halpin)