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Robinson pulls plug on new Executive and North South meetings on eve of Villiers talks to save the Assembly from collapse

By Noel McAdam

Published 08/09/2015

Peter Robinson with members of the DUP
Peter Robinson with members of the DUP
Conor Murphy heads up a Sinn Fein delegation
Mike Nesbitt of the UUP
David Ford talks to the media outside Stormont yesterday

Decision-making at the top of the Stormont government has ground to a halt after the DUP pulled the plug on future Executive meetings.

Peter Robinson's party also gummed up the works of the North South Ministerial Council which holds regular cross-border meetings.

On the eve of fresh negotiations to prevent the Assembly and Executive collapsing, the DUP had insisted it could not be 'business as usual' following the PSNI assessment that Provisional IRA members were involved in the murder of Kevin McGuigan.

But following its two-month recess, the Assembly continued as normal yesterday with full DUP participation. A Sinn Fein motion condemning the murder and urging anyone with information to go to the police was passed without a formal vote.

Mr Robinson indicated he would step up his unilateral action in the weeks ahead if he believed other parties were not serious about the talks due to be chaired from tonight by Secretary of State Theresa Villiers alongside Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan.

But he refused to give a deadline for further action, and confirmed that for the moment DUP ministers would attend the Assembly for questions and debates and MLAs would continue to turn up for committee meetings.

Mr Robinson described the murder of Mr McGuigan as a "watershed moment" for the devolved institutions.

Flanked by his Assembly team, which had unanimously agreed to the pull-out, Mr Robinson said there would be no further meetings of the Executive except in exceptional circumstances and no North South Ministerial meetings in any format.

"The DUP is not prepared to continue as if nothing has happened. A man has been murdered at the hands of those linked to a party of government. This is unacceptable," he said.

"Indeed we believe that the association with Sinn Fein is much greater than that so far revealed. If further revelations occur it will be hard for those who want 'business as usual' at Stormont to justify their position," he added.

As he spoke, however, MLAs were debating the reign of the Queen, the Syrian refugee crisis and the prospects of lower corporation tax creating jobs.

The Assembly also passed the first stage of a new housing Bill, and extended the period for two further Bills on water sewerage and legal complaints.

First Minister Robinson argued, however: "If it becomes apparent to us that a satisfactory resolution in the talks is not possible then as a last resort ministerial resignations will follow."

That would then trigger fresh elections, but Mr Robinson repeated that in those circumstances his party would not nominate a First Minister, effectively mothballing the Assembly pending further negotiations.

Referring to the stalemate over welfare reform, which is centre stage in the new talks, he added: "The present Assembly has been blocked from delivering for over two years because Sinn Fein and the SDLP would not take difficult financial decisions."

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who fielded Question Time as usual with Mr Robinson sitting opposite him, said it had been inappropriate for Mrs Villiers to say Westminster would take over the implementation of the welfare reforms.

His Sinn Fein colleague Conor Murphy said: "We're not going to allow ourselves to become distracted by the electoral contest that's going on within unionism."

Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister lambasted the DUP tactics. "An Executive that doesn't work, that doesn't deliver, isn't going to meet - big deal," he said.

During the Assembly debate on the McGuigan killing, the SDLP's Alban Maginness said there had to be more than mere denial from Sinn Fein and statements that the IRA have 'gone away' were simply not credible.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said his party could not support the motion because unless Sinn Fein and the PSNI could "get onto the same page" over the murder there was no trust or confidence.

Trevor Lunn of Alliance urged the DUP and UUP not to take further action without firmer evidence from the police.

SF Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin said: "The fact is that the IRA has gone and it isn't coming back."

So, what happens now and what it all really means...

Q. What does the Executive not meeting mean for Stormont?

A. No ministerial decisions will be taken on welfare reform, which has paralysed the administration since Sinn Fein announced it would not support the changes.

A budget passed earlier this year has a £600m black hole caused by failures to implement welfare savings and money is due to run out soon for public services.

A voluntary exit scheme for civil servants is likely to go ahead after the British Government said it would make money available.

Welfare will be a key issue during talks called by the British and Irish governments which are due to begin at Stormont on today.

Q. What do the other parties think about the Executive not meeting?

A. The Ulster Unionists have already walked out of the Executive because they claim they cannot trust republicans and want to form an opposition to the mandatory power-sharing coalition.

Sinn Fein said republicans would not be distracted by an electoral contest within unionism and has pledged to fight austerity.

It has said taking back welfare powers to Westminster would be unacceptable.

Hardliners like Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice said the Executive did not work and could not deliver anyway.

Q. Is power-sharing going to collapse completely?

A. Mr Robinson said his ministers would resign from the Executive if progress was not made in talks led by Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan.

The Government has said the talks will be short, focused and intensive.

They will cover paramilitary activity and implementation of the Stormont House Agreement, which was supposed to have resolved many outstanding peace process issues last year.

Mr Robinson has also described the Government's ultimatum that it could take back welfare powers as a "game-changer" to help get the Executive back on a sustainable financial footing.

Sinn Fein has said any move by the Government to impose its welfare cuts agenda over the head of the Assembly would seriously undermine devolution and the political institutions.

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