Belfast Telegraph

Villiers defends UK Ulster role

The Government has rejected a suggestion by Labour that it is not fully committed to Northern Ireland, after peace talks ended without agreement in the early hours of New Year's Eve.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers insisted the coalition remained "strongly engaged" in the peace process and to the people of Northern Ireland.

Defending the role that the UK has played in Northern Ireland, she said: "I wholly refute the perception of disengagement by the UK Government."

Speaking shortly after delivering a statement on the breakdown of talks chaired by US diplomat Dr Richard Haass, she said: "The UK Government is strongly engaged with the Haass process and with Northern Ireland.

"We brought the G8 to Northern Ireland - one of the most successful events ever in Northern Ireland; we followed up with a strong investment conference; we signed an economic pact, which sees us working more closely than ever with the devolved government, including the commitment to meet the £18 billion of capital spending; and we are determined to press ahead with supporting the Executive in its moves on a shared future."

She added; "We've responded when the Executive have asked us, for example, to devolve air passenger duty on long-haul flights; we stepped into assist in the grave situation we inherited from Labour on the Presbyterian Mutual Society; we are continuing to work on the devolution of corporation tax; there are a whole range of ways that this Government is working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland."

The talks were seeking a deal on contentious parades, flags and dealing with a troubled past.

Labour's shadow Northern Ireland secretary Ivan Lewis had said that there was a "widespread perception" that the UK was no longer committed to Northern Ireland, and that this perception was causing concern.

He said: "Whilst I acknowledge your contribution during the Haass talks, do you understand that during this time of uncertainty, the widespread perception of disengagement by the UK Government is causing concern across a wide spectrum of public opinion in Northern Ireland, and this needs to change?"

Mr Lewis was also critical of Ms Villiers' decision to weaken the capacity of the newly appointed Parades Commission "at this sensitive time", by limiting the number of commissioners and the number of hours each commissioner can work.

She said she was sure, however, that the "current Parades Commission will do an excellent job".

On the potential for progress moving forward, Ms Villiers said it was essential that the momentum was not lost.

She said: " It was, of course, disappointing that it didn't prove possible to achieve a comprehensive agreement within the timetable set by Dr Haass and it is clear that some of the parties have genuine concerns about aspects of what's in the final document.

"And yet the clear message from me, from the Prime Minister and from the Irish government, is that this should not be seen as the end of the road. The Haass process has seen much valuable work done and some real progress has been made.

"The momentum now needs to be maintained."

Urging talks to resume, Ms Villiers added: "I believe that Northern Ireland's political leadership should lose no time in seeking a way forward that gets the parties back round the table to try to resolve outstanding differences between them.

"For our part, the Government is continuing our dialogue with the parties and with the Irish government to see how best we can facilitate that. I firmly believe that there is still a chance to achieve a successful outcome form the works started by Dr Haass."

Mr Lewis expressed concern that the failure to reach a deal could be "potentially damaging to public confidence in Northern Ireland politicians and the political process".

He said: "We want to see all parties back round the negotiating table, as soon as possible."

Liberal Democrat Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) asked if there are plans to bring back Dr Haass at a later date.

He told Ms Villiers: "It was very challenging, we all know that. The Haass commission I think had around 100 meetings, met 500 people, received 600 submissions, they went into it very, very strongly but we've reached a point where we're stuck on the same two or three things that I suspect most people in the House knew we might well be.

"What I will ask you is are there any plans going forward for possibly bringing Dr Haass back at a certain point where he and his team might be able to unlock the log jam at an appropriate time?"

Ms Villiers replied: "Well, in my conversations with Dr Haass I certainly floated the idea as to whether he might be back in January. I think that looks unlikely.

"He has professional commitments which would make it very difficult for him to re-engage in the way he has been doing but I'm sure he'll continue to take a close interest in matters as they go forward.

"I think it is now important for the First and Deputy Minister to get the parties together, to get them round the table. They got very close to getting over the line. In the run-up to the final discussions even the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party was saying that perhaps there was 80% on the table which might be acceptable.

"Now, clearly that's a party that has some serious concerns with the proposals but again they're indicating they will continue to take part. Continuing this dialogue is the way forward."

Tory Bob Stewart (Beckenham), who served in Northern Ireland during his time in the Army, told Ms Villiers: "Speaking as someone that's lost friends and not just soldiers in Northern Ireland... can I ask you how you can balance the competing claims of the requirement to find out what has happened to so many people who have been cruelly murdered and the requirement to encourage people to come forward, perhaps with limited liability, so that we can find out what has happened to so many people that have simply disappeared in Northern Ireland?"

Ms Villiers replied: "Clearly those matters were at the heart of the work of the political parties and Dr Haass. You will be aware the idea floated for a general amnesty was almost universally rejected.

"The current proposals include a limited immunity to encourage people to take part in the truth recovery process - their representations and statements wouldn't be admissible in subsequent criminal proceedings. But that is not to say that subsequent criminal proceedings couldn't go ahead on the basis of other evidence.

"It was clear I think from pretty much all the political parties and the public reaction to the statement of the attorney general that the option of prosecution must be kept alive and the proposals on the table don't seek to take that option away."

Bob Blackman, Conservative MP for Harrow East, said it appeared the use of an independent organisation to chair the talks had been an advantage as it brought "true independence and true experience".

He asked Ms Villiers: "Can you confirm that there are no plans to introduce a further set of people as independent arbiters over these talks and that every effort will be made to bring back Dr Haass and his team at an appropriate moment when the parties have reflected on the work that has been made already?"

The Northern Ireland Secretary replied: "As I've said, I'm not sure Dr Haass is in a position to come back and perform the chairmanship role though I hope he will continue to engage as we take things forward.

"Re-introducing another independent chairman is an option for the First and Deputy First Minister. I'm not sure it's one that's needed at the moment but it's well worth their considering."

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