Belfast Telegraph

Loyalists can't set agenda at new round of talks, says Sinn Fein

By Liam Clarke

Sinn Fein looks likely to enter new all-party talks suggested by DUP leader Peter Robinson – but has concerns about them being hijacked by "disparate" groups.

Theresa Villiers, the secretary of state, is meeting Peter Robinson today as part of a drive to reopen talks on the problems facing the troubled Northern Ireland Executive. She will meet Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister, next week.

These contacts follow a proposal by Mr Robinson, in a Belfast Telegraph article, for new all-party talks. He argued that they would involve local parties as well as the Government and would deal with the stalemate on welfare reform as well as the decision-making structures at Stormont.

The ideas will be among the topics discussed by Sinn Fein at a two-day strategy session in Co Louth which is being held today and tomorrow.

Yesterday, a well-placed Sinn Fein source indicated that the party was likely to attend any talks but that it would seek to widen the agenda and was wary of Mr Robinson's stated intention of including smaller parties in the discussions.

"Our concern is that Robinson is laying the ground work for bringing in the Orange Order and the PUP and the UDA and all the rest of it into these talks. This is a disparate group of people many of whom are only interested in wrecking things," he stated.

"We will put on the table the things which we think are important at the time. Gerry (Adams) will take the decision on what we can go with in consultation with other members of the leadership and the party in general."

Mr Adams may give some indication of his thinking today and Mr McGuinness will speak to the press tomorrow.

The push for talks comes after the first minister this week said Stormont was no longer fit for purpose.

The Stormont structures he voiced his concerns about were drawn up at the St Andrews Agreement in 2006 which ushered in the present power-sharing administration. Mr Robinson said the arrangements have served their purpose and we now need a "St Andrews 2" agreement to streamline them. He argued that they contained so many checks and balances that they made decision-making difficult and created blockages like the present standoff over welfare reform. That impasse is resulting in deductions from our block grant.

Sinn Fein has demanded that the Executive confronts the Government and demands more resources to avoid cuts. Mr Robinson believes that talks involving the Government will give them a chance to make their case, but that they are unlikely to succeed.

Ms Villiers has also been meeting other parties to explore their concerns and the prospects for dialogue. Yesterday she met a UUP delegation headed by Mike Nesbitt, the party leader, and John McCallister, the former NI21 MLA.

Mr Nesbitt said most of his discussion was about proposals for a special process to look at parading in north Belfast where there is a standoff over a ban on Ligoniel Orange Lodges marching past the Ardoyne shops on their way home from the 12th July demonstration. This is seen by unionists as a pre-requisite for reopening discussions on flags, parading and the past which they walked out of during the summer.

Reopening these discussions would pave the way for nationalists to participate in the sort of talks Mr Robinson proposes.

Mr McCallister said his talks focused on a private members bill which he has tabled at Stormont to create an official opposition and that Mr Robinson's proposals also came up. "It is clear that the Northern Ireland Executive is in crisis. The need for reform has finally been acknowledged by the first minister," he said.

STORY SO FAR

Peter Robinson created a huge political fall-out this week when he wrote an article for the Belfast Telegraph saying the arrangements for devolved government at Stormont are "no longer fit for purpose". The DUP leader added that the "weight of the issues to be resolved is such that it must be tackled in a St Andrews 2 setting with government involvement".

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