Belfast Telegraph

Labour: Theresa Villiers is failing over Haass initiative

BY LIAM CLARKE

The Labour Party and SDLP have launched a joint attack on the Government's handling of the Haass talks, accusing the Secretary of State of not being fully engaged while expecting to have the final say on the outcome.

Vernon Coaker, Labour's spokesman on Northern Ireland, hit out at Theresa Villiers for her handling of the Haass talks during an address to annual party conference in Brighton.

The ongoing five-party talks led by US diplomat Dr Richard Haass are attempting to reach agreement on controversial issues such as flags, parading and the legacy of the past.

Mr Coaker told delegates a joint push was needed by the British and Irish government to resolve these issues.

Focusing his fire on the British effort, he said: "I'm disappointed with the Government's approach. The Secretary of State hasn't fully engaged with the talks..."

He also criticised local parties. "Nationalists and republicans need to show that they accept Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom while the majority of people who live there want it to be," he said.

"That's what they signed up for. It doesn't mean they have to like it, or stop working for a change to it. But they have got to respect it."

But he added: "Unionists and loyalists need to show that they acknowledge that Northern Ireland is Irish too. It must be shared between everyone. That's what they signed up for.

"It doesn't diminish their place in the United Kingdom, or mean they have to stop supporting the Union. But they must respect the equal status and legitimacy of their neighbours' Irishness."

SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell called on both British and Irish governments to start "actively working to deliver on the commitments made 15 years ago".

"The current British Government has taken their hands off the controls. It is therefore incumbent on the British Labour Party to push for the Government to fulfil its role as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement."

A spokesman for the Secretary of State said any criticism from Labour that the Government was disengaged "is wholly unjustified".

"Vernon Coaker clearly seems to have some difficulty understanding that the Haass group is an all-party group of the Executive set up by the First and Deputy First Ministers," he said.

"It's right that local politicians start to take ownership of the issues it is considering. Yet the Government remains fully engaged with and supportive of the process."

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