Belfast Telegraph

Executive parties get round table

Stormont's five Executive parties have finally all met together in the latest political talks process, four weeks after the initiative started.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan were also in attendance at the round table session at Ms Villiers' Belfast base at Stormont House.

The talks, aimed at resolving long-standing and current disputes at the heart of the powersharing administration, got off to an uncertain start last month when the DUP refused to turn up to the opening plenary session after branding it a "circus" and raising concerns about the involvement of the Irish Government on internal Northern Ireland matters.

Parties have held a series of one-to-one meetings with each other, and with Ms Villiers, Mr Flanagan and US envoy Gary Hart, in the subsequent weeks but until this morning they had yet to come together in the same room.

But the meeting was characterised as a stock taking "review" exercise on the first four weeks of the process, and did not involve actual negotiations on the big ticket issues.

The meeting came a week after the region's two main parties - the DUP and Sinn Fein - agreed a hard hitting budget plan - a deal that engendered some optimism that progress in the free-standing talks process could be made.

But the parties were at each other's necks once again last night in an angry Assembly debate on allegations a Sinn Fein minister had covered up historic sex abuse allegations.

The talks process, which was convened by Ms Villiers, is attempting to find consensus on bitter peace process wrangles over flags, parades and the toxic legacy of the past.

Budgetary issues, including the failure to implement the UK Government's welfare reforms in the region, are also on the agenda.

The very structures of the Assembly are up for discussion as well.

Stormont ministers Arlene Foster and Simon Hamilton represented the DUP at this morning's meeting, with DUP First Minister Peter Robinson arriving for the latter stages after attending another engagement.

A DUP spokesman described the meeting as "positive".

He said the talks were proceeding on the format established throughout the peace process that the Irish Government only participated on issues directly impacting its jurisdiction.

"The Secretary of State informed the meeting that there had been positive engagement through the bilaterals held thus far," he said.

"Further bilaterals will take place."

But the party statement did not strike an optimistic note on the prospect of further all-party sessions in the near future.

"The DUP has now submitted five papers to the talks process but has yet to receive any substantive written proposals from any other party," the spokesman said.

"Now we need to see proposed solutions from other parties.

"We will continue to meet with parties who want to meet with us in bilateral format."

Ahead of this morning's meeting, Mr Flanagan said: "The parties have covered considerable ground.

"Nonetheless, there remains substantial work to be done in order to achieve a comprehensive agreement for the benefit of all of the people of Northern Ireland.

"I commend all involved for their work to date."

The Traditional Unionist Voice party, which is not a member of the Executive, criticised the DUP for sitting down with Mr Flanagan.

TUV leader Jim Allister accused his unionist rivals of a "remarkable climbdown".

"Dublin should mind its own business and no self-respecting Unionist will be present in any meeting to discuss internal Northern Ireland business where a seat at the table is given to the Irish representatives," he said.

Further bilateral meetings were held this afternoon with more scheduled tomorrow.

SDLP Leader Alasdair McDonnell said talks must intensify if a comprehensive resolution is to be reached.

"It is absolutely imperative that we now see a serious intensification of the talks process," he said.

"Time is of the essence and there is a long list of issues which must be addressed.

"A piecemeal settlement which leaves issues to roll on will not be acceptable to the SDLP. We need a comprehensive agreement that deals with all the outstanding issues that have been brought to the table by the political parties and the governments.

"It is welcome, at least, that all parties are now around the table. If others had, however, engaged in a fulsome way from the very beginning, we may be much further down the road than we currently are. That is why we need the process to intensify."

Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy also called for intensification. He claimed his party had only received one submission paper from the DUP, not five.

"Today was the first time that all the parties have been around the table with the two governments," he said.

"The meeting today has been billed as a stock-taking exercise, however there wasn't a lot of stock to take.

"To date there hasn't been a credible talks process. If the DUP is serious they should be sharing papers with all the other parties.

"So far we have only received one paper from the DUP.

"We need to deal with the issues of identity and the legacy of the past as well as outstanding commitments from the Good Friday and other agreements.

"Clearly there is the ongoing threat to the Executive's budget posed by the year-on-year cuts by the Tories to the block grant.

"There is a need to break the gridlock in the institutions and there is an onus on the British Government to honour the outstanding commitments from the Good Friday and other agreements.

"There is clearly a need to intensify the talks if we are to make any progress and Sinn Fein will be doing a round of meetings with the other parties in an effort to move forward into a credible process."

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