Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Leaders identify different issues

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness held talks with David Cameron

Stormont's First and Deputy First Ministers identified very different roadblocks obstructing political agreement in Northern Ireland as they emerged from a meeting with the Prime Minister in London.

The DUP's Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness were holding discussions with David Cameron at Westminster as delegations from the five main executive parties were embarking on a new talks initiative in Belfast aimed at resolving long-standing disputes over flags, parades and the past.

With the negotiations commencing as the traditional loyal order marching season nears its height on July 12, the issue of parades has assumed particular significance in the latest bid to forge a deal.

First Minister Mr Robinson claimed recent decisions to restrict Orange marches taken by the Government-appointed Parades Commission adjudication body was having a destabilising effect.

However his partner in government Mr McGuinness claimed unionists were effectively threatening the institutions at Stormont if the Orange Order and hardline loyalists did not get their way on issues like parades.

Mr Robinson branded the commission a "shambles".

In particular he referred to a determination in Portadown last month that initially permitted a parade only for the commission to change its stance within days.

Mr Robinson said: "A real effort has to be made to ensure that we don't have violence on the streets.

"I abhor violence on the streets and the cause of violence as well, because very often the cause is stupid decisions that are made by bodies that are appointed to make sensible decisions.

"You cannot have a body that takes a decision one day to allow a parade to go down a road, changes its mind the next day and says it can't go down a road, changes their minds to say they'll have a review, changes it again to say they won't have a review.

"What impact does that have on a community? It's an absolute shambles."

He said the unionist leadership would "channel that anger" in a way that was "peaceful and political". Mr Robinson said if the Parades Commission continued to act in a "foolish" way it should be replaced.

Mr McGuinness said he was "sceptical" about the talks in Belfast but said "we come at it with a strong will and a good heart".

The Sinn Fein veteran has repeatedly claimed that elements of the Orange Order, the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force and the loyalist political party the Progressive Unionist Party have been stoking up tensions.

"What we are concerned about is the reality that unionist politicians and others have been effectively threatening the continuation of the institutions if the Orange Order and the UVF and the PUP don't get their way," he said today.

He added: "What we need to see is people recognise the responsibility that politicians have both to supporting the Parades Commission and the police.

"Peter Robinson and I met yesterday with George Hamilton, the new chief constable. I think there's a duty and a responsibility on all of us at this time, with a common voice, to appeal for peace and calm on the streets over the course of the summer months so that whenever the Parades Commission make a determination we do everything in our power to appeal to people, some of whom might not like the determination, that they should remain peaceful and express whatever opposition they may have to any determination in a very peaceful way."

But he acknowledged: "These talks that are taking place starting today have been met with a huge degree of scepticism and cynicism. I'm as sceptical as anybody else."

He added: "People have a right to be sceptical but at the same time, as we always do in the context of negotiations, we come at it with a strong will and a good heart to find an agreement.

"We really do need compromise and people need to reach out the hand of friendship and reconciliation."

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said the Prime Minister would do whatever he could to support Stormont's politicians in reaching for agreement on peace process impasses.

But she stressed the importance of obtaining a local accord and ruled out the imposition of solutions from London.

Ms Villiers, who also attended the meeting at Westminster, said Mr Cameron was "very clear that he stands ready to do whatever he can to support the efforts made by the political parties to make progress on flags, parading and the past".

She added: "When it comes down to it, no agreement is going to stick and be workable unless it has the support of Northern Ireland's political leaders. We can support, we can encourage, we can facilitate but we can't impose a solution from above it."

Ms Villiers said the Parades Commission was "doing a good job" and "it's really important for all our political leaders in Northern Ireland to express support for the rule of law, to express support for the determinations the Parades Commission make, to urge everyone, whatever they think of a determination, to comply with it and to ensure that any protest or parade is both peaceful and lawful".

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