BELFAST, (Reuters) – Northern Ireland’s main parties have made progress in a last-ditch attempt to restore devolved government and their talks should conclude one way or another next week, the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein said on Friday.
Northern Ireland has been without an executive and assembly for over a year following Sinn Fein’s withdrawal from the power-sharing government, saying it was not being treated as an equal partner by its rival, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
The two parties, representing mainly Catholic proponents of uniting with the rest of Ireland and majority Protestant supporters of continued rule by Britain, have failed to meet a number of deadlines to reach agreement since then.
“Progress has been made in the talks but there are outstanding issues to be resolved; talks are continuing and should conclude next week,” a Sinn Fein spokesman said.
Disagreement remained on a range of issues ahead of the latest round of talks, including same-sex marriage, which is illegal in Northern Ireland despite being legal in the rest of Britain and Ireland, rights for Irish language speakers, and funding for inquests into deaths during decades of sectarian Protestant-Catholic violence before a 1998 peace deal.
The British government, which is overseeing the talks alongside the Irish government, has already had to take steps towards ruling the region directly from London for the first time in a decade, setting its budget late last year.
Many in the province fear direct rule would further destabilise the delicate political balance between the two sides who up until last year had run the province since 2007 under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord.
The absence of an executive in the province has also limited its say in Britain’s negotiations to leave the European Union that are set to have a bigger impact on Northern Ireland than on any other part of the United Kingdom.
Friday’s talks were Gerry Adams’ last as Sinn Fein president as he prepares to formally step down as leader on Saturday having led the party since 1983.
“We’re not there yet,” Adams, who will be succeeded by Mary Lou McDonald, told national broacaster RTE. “There are still obstacles and difficulties and the fact that it’s taken so long shows how difficult it is.”