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Business as usual, but fresh crises loom over talks

By Noel McAdam

Published 21/10/2015

Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson

Peter Robinson has returned to Stormont as a full-time First Minister, and his resigned ministers are back at their departmental desks following yesterday's report into paramilitary activity.

The DUP leader immediately warned that the danger to the power-sharing government was far from over - with the collapse of Stormont still a real possibility if talks failed.

The First Minister said a more intensive phase of negotiations, due to resume today, could go a few days beyond the end of this month but no longer.

If no agreement is in sight by then, Mr Robinson warned the institutions will not be sustainable. It will probably lead to fresh Assembly elections.

But a new deal, also involving welfare reform, would have to include a strategy to end paramilitarism, with both republican and loyalist groups leaving the stage, he insisted.

His two-week ultimatum - echoing the timetable envisaged by Prime Minister David Cameron - came as he and other DUP ministers fully resumed office at 4pm yesterday, just two hours after the report by an independent panel concluded the Provisional IRA is committed to "peaceful means".

Mr Robinson declared the "contradiction" between Chief Constable George Hamilton's assessment of the murder of Kevin McGuigan in Belfast, and the arrest of leading republican Bobby Storey, had been resolved by the report.

"We are back, but really are we only back for a couple of weeks while the talks process is concluded, because unless we can resolve all of these outstanding issues we won't be able to have a sustainable Assembly and Executive," he said.

But his decision to go back into office after almost six weeks was castigated by rival unionists. The Ulster Unionists claimed their clean break from the Executive had been vindicated, and TUV leader Jim Allister called the DUP's rush back into office "shameless".

Mr Robinson returned the attack.

He warned that "there are still wreckers out there" and labelled the TUV leader "knee-jerk Jim".

Mr Robinson said he was bemused at the reaction of unionists to the report which highlighted the authority and ongoing existence of the Provisional IRA's army council.

He said it was a "distinction without a difference".

"The DNA of the Army Council is identical with the DNA of the Sinn Fein leadership," he said.

And he agreed with Secretary of State Theresa Villiers that the panel report made "uncomfortable reading" and that, more than 20 years after the paramilitary ceasefires, the community "deserved much better".

Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, said it was now clear that Sinn Fein is the only organisation involved in republican activism and does not represent "a threat to anyone in the community".

"There are, of course, enormous and urgent issues to be dealt with around the existence of armed groups, paramilitaries and criminality," he told reporters at Stormont.

"We all have a responsibility to deal with these issues to tackle criminality and bring paramilitarism to an end and Sinn Fein will play a full part in this important work.

"We now need to get on with the pressing issues facing the community and the economy; Tory cuts to essential public services and attacks on working families and those on welfare, and dealing with the legacy of the past," he went on.

UUP leader, Mike Nesbitt, said Sinn Fein must now make clear the extent to which its political mandate is shaped "by a group of unnamed shadowy figures who in the past have overseen the most lethal terrorist force on the planet".

And Mr Allister added: "Bad enough to sit in government with IRA/Sinn Fein under the false pretence that all their military structures and weapons were gone.

"But to rush back into the arms of Sinn Fein after authoritative confirmation that the IRA not only exists, but has weapons and an illegal Army Council, which directs both the IRA and Sinn Fein, is political treachery."

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