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Theresa Villiers statement fails to win unionist support for Stormont talks


Caution: Theresa Villiers

Caution: Theresa Villiers

Theresa Villiers has outlined the Government's intentions on the political furore sparked by an IRA-linked murder

Theresa Villiers has outlined the Government's intentions on the political furore sparked by an IRA-linked murder

Caution: Theresa Villiers

Uncertainty continues to dog political talks aimed at saving power-sharing in Northern Ireland after a Government statement failed to prompt unionists to sign up to negotiations.

The Democratic Unionists and Ulster Unionists want to see action taken against paramilitarism before they enter into cross-party, round-table discussions to resolve the crisis created by an IRA-linked murder.

Both parties had hoped Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers would outline definitive steps to crack down on remaining terror structures in a statement to the House of Commons.

Ms Villiers said "serious consideration" needs to be given to establishing a new body to monitor paramilitarism and the Government will "actively consider" new ways of tackling organised criminality.

Her remarks were not met with a commitment from either the DUP or UUP to enter negotiations, with both parties effectively adopting a "wait and see" approach.

DUP leader Peter Robinson characterised Ms Villers's comments as a "holding statement", insisting talks will be "delayed" until she provides further details, while UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said the statement had not moved things on.

Sinn Fein has branded the situation "farcical" and said talks should begin immediately, without preconditions, warning that if they fail to proceed the only alternative is a snap election.

The mandatory coalition Executive in Belfast is teetering on the verge of collapse.

The UUP has quit the administration and the DUP has pulled four of its five ministers out.

The crisis rocking the faltering administration erupted after last month's murder of former IRA member Kevin McGuigan.

Police have said current members of the IRA were involved in shooting the 53-year-old father-of-nine in a suspected revenge attack for the murder of former IRA commander Gerard "Jock" Davison in Belfast three months earlier.

The disclosures about the IRA have heaped pressure on Sinn Fein to explain why the police assess the supposedly defunct paramilitary organisation is still in existence.

Sinn Fein insists the IRA has gone away and has accused the two unionist parties of contriving a crisis for electoral gain.

Addressing MPs in Westminster, Ms Villiers outlined the potential of establishing a mechanism such as the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), which assessed the status of paramilitary structures during the peace process.

She insisted no-one wants to wind back the clock and return to direct rule from Westminster.

The Conservative MP told the Commons the two "brutal" murders had brought into "sharp focus" the problems around the continued existence of paramilitary organisations.

"The Government is clear that paramilitary organisations have no place in a democratic society," she said.

"They were never justified in the past, they are not justified now, and we all need to work together to find a way to bring to an end this continuing blight on Northern Ireland society.

"The Government is working with the parties on how to achieve that goal.

"For example, serious consideration needs to be given to whether the time is right to re-establish a body along the lines of the Independent Monitoring Commission.

"The remit the parties might wish to give to such a body is likely to be different from those addressed by the original IMC, reflecting changed circumstances.

"But there might well be scope for such a body to play a part in providing greater community confidence and repairing working relationships within the Executive.

"The Government will also actively consider whether there is more that we can do to support efforts to tackle organised crime and cross-border crime in Northern Ireland."

Ms Villiers said the Government will continue to hear representations from the region's politicians in the days ahead to "ensure all parties can engage" in the talks process.

In response, Mr Robinson indicated his party would wait for this exercise to be completed before making a decision regarding negotiations.

He tweeted: "Heard SoS's holding statement & commitment 'in the coming days' to respond to concerns. This delays start of Talks. We await her response."

Mr Nesbitt said his party will hold further bilateral discussions with Ms Villiers tomorrow.

"The words uttered in the Commons today don't really move us forward very much," he said.

"But it is a process and we are keen to see a resolution."

Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy heavily criticised the approach of the unionist parties.

"If people are not going to be prepared to go into those talks the only other option is an election, so this needs to be called very, very quickly," he said.

"This is a farcical situation that is becoming worse by the day."

Nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party Assembly member Alex Attwood said: "The British Government must show resolve ... no unilateral action to dig out the DUP, be it suspension, exclusion or any other device that they might serve up over the next 24 hours."

He said tackling organised crime, supporting the rule of law, creating a proper budget for Northern Ireland public services and implementing outstanding agreements should be on the talks agenda.

"Maybe this time people in Northern Ireland won't be let down by those parties that serve their own interests by making different demands on the two governments in relation to the operation of devolution on one hand and the rule of law on the other."

Arlene Foster, who is standing in as First Minister, expanded on her DUP party leader's tweet.

She said: "Unfortunately, the delay in being able to deal with these matters is delaying the start of substantive talks and we hope to get into those talks as quickly as possible when the Secretary of State moves forward."

Although, she branded the Secretary of State's remarks "disappointing", Ms Foster said interesting "elements" would be considered.

"She (Ms Villiers) needs to do more than just look and consider. We need to see action," she added.