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Mid-January earliest date for Ard Fheis

By Noel McAdam

Senior Sinn Fein figures are to meet in the next few days to discuss holding their crucial ard fheis gathering on policing.

Under pressure from the British and Irish governments, the Sinn Fein leadership at the end of last week failed to call the party executive meeting which could trigger the ard fheis.

Instead the party said senior representatives would meet immediately after Christmas.

A meeting of the executive (ard chomhairle) could be organised in 48 to 72 hours, so could take place during New Year week.

But if it agrees to go ahead with the vital ard fheis, that would not happen for a further fortnight, which would mean a mid-January meeting at the earliest.

A decision to hold the full ard fheis, which would take place in Dublin, requires a two-thirds majority of the national executive.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, who has the final decision on calling the executive, has made clear that is by no means a foregone conclusion.

Contact between the governments and parties went on late last Friday with no breakthrough, although progress was reported.

Mr Adams has insisted a date for the transfer of justice and policing powers to the Assembly must be agreed. The DUP has been equally adamant it will not agree to any date in advance.

Under the St Andrews Agreement, however, the target date for the transfer is May 2008.

With Tony Blair in the background and in touch by telephone, Secretary of State Peter Hain and officials made several attempts last week to find a form of words which could advance the issue and invoked the importance of the May 2008 date.

But senior Sinn Fein negotiator Martin McGuinness accused the DUP of making pointedly provocative statements.

"The deliberately provocative statements from some senior DUP figures is a cause of concern to nationalists and republicans because key to moving forward is a commitment from the DUP to share power on the basis of equality with republicans," he said.

His criticism came after DUP MP Nigel Dodds argued that the May 2008 date had been set by Government and carried no weight.

"The target date of May 2008 is entirely one set by Government," he said. "It has never been agreed by the DUP nor will it be. So Hain's comments on this issue amount to hot air."

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