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Villiers calls all-party talks to prevent collapse

By Noel McAdam

Published 11/09/2015

Theresa Villiers
Theresa Villiers
Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams address the media at Stormont yesterday

Lifeline talks to attempt to prevent the final collapse of the Assembly and Executive are to resume next week.

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers is inviting the five main parties - DUP, Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionist, SDLP and Alliance - to new meetings on Monday morning.

All but one DUP minister quit the Executive yesterday. Had they all gone, then the Assembly would have collapsed entirely.

As it is, several Stormont departments, including Health, are now without ministers and effectively under the control of civil servants. Mrs Villiers said the talks would focus on the issue of paramilitary links involving Sinn Fein and the welfare reform stand-off preventing implementation of the wider Stormont House Agreement reached last December.

She admitted the DUP resignations, a week after the similar departure of the only Ulster Unionist minister, were "a sign of a complete breakdown in working relationships within the Executive".

She opened a Press conference less than half-an-hour after the DUP resignations by saying: "It's a bad day for the Northern Ireland political process."

Mrs Villiers confirmed the resignation of Peter Robinson or Martin McGuinness would have triggered new elections. However, Mr Robinson had only stepped aside and appointed Arlene Foster as Acting First Minister.

In the event of the Executive imploding, legislation leaves it to the Northern Ireland Secretary to decide on a date for an election, but requires her to do so in a reasonable time.

Mrs Villiers was asked to respond to Mr Robinson's assertion that if Sinn Fein and SDLP ministers resigned, leaving only unionists in the Executive, it would be suspended immediately.

"We did not think the circumstances will justify suspension, that has not changed and obviously suspension would not resolve the two big problems we face, implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and the presence of paramilitary organisations," she said.

"The only way those problems are going to be resolved are through intensive cross-party talks." Mrs Villiers will again be joined by the Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan, who has said: "There is a solemn duty and obligation on the part of everybody involved to forge agreement."

Prime Minister David Cameron was said to be "gravely concerned" about the developing situation.

His official spokeswoman said: "As he was saying in the House (of Commons) yesterday, we want to see all politicians in Northern Ireland working together to build a better future for the country and working to fulfil its great potential. We have been encouraging talks between the parties so they can work through their issues."

President's Barack Obama's US special envoy to Northern Ireland - former US Senator Gary Hart - urged all of the parties to engage constructively in the negotiations.

"Northern Ireland's achievements are the result of dialogue and responsible leadership; now is the time to re-energise the parties' commitment to implementing the Stormont House Agreement and addressing remnant paramilitary activity," he added.

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