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Peter Robinson digs in over DUP's precondition for talks after Villiers rejects his demands

By Liam Clarke

Published 16/09/2015

Arlene Foster and Simon Hamilton
Arlene Foster and Simon Hamilton
Conor Murphy and Caral Ni Chuilin talk to the media yesterday
Alex Attwood with an SDLP delegation

DUP leader Peter Robinson has ruled out an early return to talks after the Secretary of State and the Government refused to meet his preconditions.

In a statement to the Commons yesterday, Theresa Villiers said she was considering reintroducing the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) to monitor paramilitary activity but insisted it must first be agreed in talks with other parties.

Ms Villiers said: "Serious consideration needs to be given to whether the time is right to re-establish a body along the lines of the Independent Monitoring Commission". But she added: "The important thing is not to prejudge what the parties will put forward during the talks. In my discussions with all the parties in recent days, there has been some recognition that an independent body of that sort could play a role in resolving the questions around paramilitaries."

Recently the PSNI stated that IRA members and ex-members were involved in the murder of their former comrade Kevin McGuigan and were also involved in criminality. There is a cross-border and international dimension to this.

As we reported yesterday the unionist parties had both made demands which included a clampdown on alleged paramilitary criminality like fuel laundering and arms importation. They wanted this process monitored by an IMC. They said that their presence in any round-table negotiations would depend on Ms Villiers making a start on this.

She stopped short of meeting these demands but suggested they would be considered. She also poured cold water on suggestions of a return to direct rule. "I firmly believe that no one wants to wind back the clock and go back to direct rule. As I have said, there are difficulties and frustrations with power-sharing and inclusive government, but it is hugely preferable to direct rule," she said.

Her contribution prompted a Twitter response from Peter Robinson in which he stated: "Heard SoS's holding statement & commitment 'in the coming days' to respond to concerns. This delays start of Talks. We await her response."

However, Ms Villiers did give some clue to Government thinking. She said that, as a last resort, the Government might legislate for welfare reform and that she had Labour backing to do this. "If these matters are not dealt with by the parties, as a last resort the Government would have to legislate here at Westminster, a position on which I hope we would have the support of the honourable Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker, her Labour opposite number)."

Ms Villiers reminded Mr Coaker that the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, and the new Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had both been outspoken supporters of Irish unity and friends of Sinn Fein before taking up their posts this week.

Mr Coaker, who sat near Mr McDonnell, was blunt. "Let me say straight away to the Secretary of State that it is the Opposition's intention, as well as my own, to pursue a bipartisan approach based on the agreements reached, in particular the principle of consent. Our policy remains absolutely the same and I emphasise that to the Secretary of State and all those who are listening to or reading this debate," he told her.

Mr Coaker previously said that Mr Corbyn granted him control of policy on Northern Ireland. The principle of consent means that there cannot be a united Ireland without two referenda, one here and one in the Republic.

Sinn Fein, which doesn't take its seats at Westminster, warned against meeting unionist demands before talks. Conor Murphy wanted "no delays or preconditions" in beginning all-party talks.

"These talks should begin immediately... If a resolution cannot be found then the next step will be to go to the polls and call a fresh election," he said.

In the house, Ms Villiers stated that this could happen "only if either the First Minister or Deputy First Minister were to resign". and Mr Robinson had stood aside rather than resigning. She said "suspension of the institutions or a return to direct rule ... would require primary legislation at Westminster, which is not something the Government believe would be justified in the current circumstances. It also does not mean that the Assembly or the Executive cease to function, but the situation is very grave."

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