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Theresa May heads to Northern Ireland as power-sharing hopes rise

Theresa May will fly to Belfast on Monday amid renewed optimism that Northern Ireland’s main political parties are close to agreeing a deal to restore the power-sharing executive.

Downing Street said the prime minister would meet political parties in Stormont as crisis talks between the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) and Sinn Féin continue.

The taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, will travel to Belfast to meet the prime minister, an Irish government spokesman said. Varadkar had been due to meet the Welsh first minister on Monday, but that has been cancelled.

The UK government, May will say, is fully committed to restoring power-sharing, as well as the principles of the Good Friday agreement which created the devolved system of government.

The Irish government spokesman added: “The government has consistently said that the restoration of the institutions is essential in the context of full implementation of the Good Friday agreement and that it will continue to work very closely with the British government to support the northern parties to achieve this outcome.”

Sinn Féin’s Northern Ireland assembly leader Michelle O’Neill was reported on Saturday to have said talks were likely to draw to a close this week.

The DUP/Sinn Féin-led coalition collapsed in January last year, triggered by a row over a green energy scheme, but talks to repair relations have sparked further disputes, including disagreements on the role of the Irish language.

A source who has been present at the past few weeks of negotiations between the parties represented in the Northern Ireland assembly told the Guardian on Sunday that a potential breakthrough centres on the issue of an Irish language act.

Sinn Féin’s core demand in its discussions with the DUP has focused on the drafting of the act to give Gaelic the same legal status as English throughout Northern Ireland.

The DUP has refused to agree to the legislation but, according to the source, there will now be three separate acts one secures the rights of Irish language speakers, a second enforces the rights of Ulster Scots speakers and a third general cultural act deals with the promotion of Orange/Protestant culture.

The source said, however, that they believed Arlene Foster, the DUP leader and former first minister of Northern Ireland, may find it difficult to sell the “three-act” compromise to her party.

The smaller nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP), said it welcomed signals that a deal appeared to be within reach.

Colum Eastwood, the SDLP leader, said his party would await the full details of the deal before giving full judgement. He said: “Having been frozen in failure for over a year, a deal must not be a moment of self-congratulation for Sinn Féin and the DUP. If a deal is done, it must instead be a moment when our politics returns for the real challenges and crises facing this society.”

May’s visit will also put the spotlight on the progress of negotiations over the Northern Irish border after Brexit. Downing Street said progress had been made in recent days with the Irish government, which has said any return to a hard border between the two countries would be unacceptable.

Her visit will begin with a visit to a local firm, intended to highlight the government’s commitment to allowing Northern Irish businesses to trade smoothly.

The announcement of May’s visit came as the SDLP leader said any deal reached between the DUP and Sinn Féin should also include measures to prevent any similar long stand-offs after future elections.

Eastwood said it was not enough to simply form a new executive. “The real change necessary is an end to the cycle of two parties who have proved themselves very good at the art of political stand-off but very bad at the responsibility of government,” he said.

Northern Ireland’s border is one of the key issues May has been under pressure to resolve in the coming weeks. A meeting of the cabinet to discuss the Irish border on Wednesday failed to come to any significant conclusions.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said on Friday that a UK decision to leave the single market and customs union would make Irish border checks “unavoidable” if the UK went through with its plans to leave the customs union.

Irish politicians and security experts have warned any border infrastructure on the island of Ireland would endanger the peace process and be a target for terrorism.

The Irish senator, Neal Richmond, who is the ruling Fine Gael party’s EU spokesman, said: “Any border and customs infrastructure is a viable threat to the peace process which is only 20 years old on this island. The Irish overnment is a co-guarantor of the Good Friday agreement … as is the British government, so we do have a responsibility to make sure that case is known.”

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