Belfast Telegraph

McGuinness demands talks on crisis

British, Irish and American negotiators should be drafted in to resolve a crisis at the heart of Northern Ireland's power-sharing Government, the region's Deputy First Minister has said.

Martin McGuinness blamed an "anti-agreement axis" for threatening to bring down the institutions at Stormont and branded a bitter row over controversial welfare cuts a "smokescreen".

In his hard-hitting address at the Sinn Fein national strategy session in Termonfeckin, Co Louth, Mr McGuinness said: " Negotiations should be convened immediately by the two governments with the support and assistance of the US administration."

Earlier this week Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson said the mandatory coalition led by the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein was no longer fit for purpose.

In a dramatic intervention, the DUP leader called for a second take on the 2006 St Andrews Agreement that paved the way for the return of devolution in May 2007, when then DUP leader Ian Paisley and Mr McGuinness became first and deputy first ministers.

Mr Robinson said the St Andrews Agreement - which included an elaborate system of checks, allowed one party to block changes and provided no significant opposition - was only a short-term solution and called for renewed negotiations involving the British Government as well as smaller parties not currently on the five-party Executive.

Mr Robinson also said t he Executive could not continue to operate if there was no agreement on welfare reform.

Sinn Fein has vehemently opposed implementing the controversial cuts and argues that the Executive demand further concessions from Westminster. The DUP claim avoiding the cuts is impossible and would lead to the loss of £1 billion from the economy because of heavy fines imposed by the Treasury.

Mr McGuinness hit back: " These cuts would undermine all of the anti-poverty measures that we are committed to in our Programme for Government.

"It is a right-wing, conservative agenda. It is a policy designed by millionaires in London who know nothing about surviving on a low income and who care even less for those who do.

"It is a policy supported by politicians in the Assembly who also know nothing about surviving on a low income.

"We believe that the Assembly and the Executive should take our own decisions on these matters. We believe the Assembly and the Executive should have the power and the responsibility; and not just the responsibility."

Relations between the Executive's two largest parties have become increasingly strained since a decision was taken to limit the flying of the Union flag over Belfast City Hall in December 2012. The move sparked widespread loyalist street protests and rioting erupted in some areas.

Last year u nionists pulled their support for the development of a peace centre on the site of a former paramilitary prison at the Maze, Co Antrim, prompting an outcry from Sinn Fein.

Talks led by former US diplomat Richard Haass to deal with three of the most contentious issues left over from the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement - flags, parading and dealing with the legacy of the past - also ended without agreement last December.

However, Mr McGuinness said he believed the current difficulties could be overcome.

"Everyone needs to appreciate the distance we have travelled out of conflict. Building peace is a process, the journey is not over.

"But I retain great hope for the future. Political unionism may be sleep walking into a crisis but civic unionism, the business sector, the voluntary and community sector value the work that has been done and are focused on the future.

"That is Sinn Fein's focus also. Whatever the current challenges and problems, they can and will be overcome.

"Sinn Fein is up for negotiations. We are willing to work with all the parties and the two governments to address outstanding issues and to build a process of reconciliation based on mutual respect.

"I firmly believe that all the problems we face are surmountable, that given the political will they can be resolved."

Meanwhile, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said that he hoped the parties in Stormont would take part in a new round of talks to resolve issues and that the Irish Government would take a very active interest.

"The people in Northern Ireland voted for devolved administration, that does give responsibility and it is the responsibility of the elected politicians to do the business in Northern Ireland," he told RTE Radio.

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