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Government to host 'intensive' talks in bid to resolve impasse

By Liam Clarke

Published 04/09/2015

The SDLP’s Alban Maginness, Alex Attwood and Fearghal McKinney speak to the Press after meeting with Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers at Stormont yesterday
The SDLP’s Alban Maginness, Alex Attwood and Fearghal McKinney speak to the Press after meeting with Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers at Stormont yesterday

Downing Street has confirmed that "urgent, intensive and focused cross-party talks" will begin next week in Belfast in an attempt to resolve the crisis at the Assembly over IRA activity.

The four Executive parties plus the UUP, which resigned its single ministry, have been invited.

The plan was agreed in a phone conversation between Prime Minister David Cameron and Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

The talks are planned for next week at Stormont House with Secretary of State Theresa Villiers representing London and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan, Dublin.

Downing Street said devolved power-sharing is facing a real threat unless there is urgent progress.

"As a result of these discussions the Government has concluded that there is a clear need to convene urgent, intensive and focused cross-party talks, involving the parties engaged in the negotiations that led to the Stormont House Agreement," the statement said.

Mr Kenny said the talks should be "short, focused and intensive".

"If the sustainability of the devolved institutions is to be ensured, it is absolutely critical that these talks are advanced with a sense of urgency and that all of the parties constructively seize this opportunity," he said.

More details may be given in a speech Northern Ireland Secretary Ms Villiers will make tomorrow at the British Irish Association. Other participants attending the political forum in Cambridge include Sinn Fein national chairperson Declan Kearney and Mr Flanagan.

The DUP will not be attending this year. It had been intending to send Jeffrey Donaldson MP, but he pulled out yesterday because he was needed in Belfast.

Alliance is also staying home because their party council is this weekend.

However, the UUP and SDLP are sending delegations that include their party leaders, Mike Nesbitt and Dr Alasdair McDonnell.

The DUP and Sinn Fein are still at loggerheads on most issues. One likely area of accommodation is on a new Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) to report on the state of the paramilitary ceasefires.

The DUP favour the idea and Sinn Fein is largely indifferent. "Nobody will lose any sleep over it but it is not necessary," one republican source said.

A new IMC-style ceasefire watchdog could, however, gain some time for the furore over the murder of Kevin McGuigan to die down. The police have said he was killed by IRA members and criminals working together but there is no evidence that it was sanctioned at top level or that the Sinn Fein leadership knew about it in advance.

Most politicians privately concede there is unlikely to be the evidence to expel Sinn Fein, even if parliament rushed through legislation to renew Ms Villiers' lapsed powers to do so.

One source said: "The level of proof needed would be a confession or a tape of a Sinn Fein minister promising political cover for a killing. There is no chance of either."

Yesterday, Alliance leader David Ford said he would need "clear and specific" evidence for his party to withdraw from the Executive or vote to exclude Sinn Fein. But he pledged that if evidence was to emerge, his party would then take "action" to maintain the "integrity of politics against the threat of paramilitary violence".

Meanwhile, the SDLP, following a meeting with Ms Villiers, also warned the Government against suspension, which they said would make "a bad situation worse".

Former Executive Minister Alex Attwood said his advice for London was: "Do not make a bad situation worse by the Prime Minister (left) making any commitment to the DUP to legislate over the heads of the parties in the north when it comes to how the Assembly conducts its affairs."

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