Talks on some of Northern Ireland’s most divisive issues begin under a cloud today with the DUP boycotting the opening session at Stormont — despite a plea from the Prime Minister for parties to work together.
The five main executive parties have been invited to the talks set up by Secretary of State Theresa Villiers to tackle a series of thorny issues. But the First Minister has dismissed the opening day as a “circus act for the media”.
Writing in today’s Belfast Telegraph, deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness warned that DUP “bad faith” is leading to a crisis in government.
However, the Prime Minister said he expected reports of progress by the end of November.
“It is essential that we do all that we can to lift the blockages that are preventing the Executive from delivering the effective government that the people of Northern Ireland expect and deserve,” said David Cameron.
“Northern Ireland’s politicians need to deal with these issues so that they can focus on the key priorities of building a stronger, healthier economy and a genuinely shared society. But while the Government can help, ultimately it is for Northern Ireland political leaders to take these issues forward. I trust, therefore, that all parties will approach these talks constructively and with a genuine willingness to succeed.”
But Mr McGuinness said his party’s power-sharing partners are not to be trusted following a series of events over recent months. He said Peter Robinson has had to “pander” to elements which are opposed to the Good Friday Agreement — and insisted the latest talks “must be free from preconditions and threats.”
The senior Sinn Fein leader also demanded the Government lift its threat of cuts to Northern Ireland’s Block Grant over the failure of the Executive to implement welfare reform.
The long drawn-out stalemate over welfare reform is one of the main issues expected to be under negotiation in the talks.
But the tone of Mr McGuinness’ article does not augur well for the latest breakthrough attempt, which gets under way almost a year after the collapsed negotiations chaired by US diplomat Richard Haass and Harvard professor Meghan O’Sullivan.
The DUP leader is holding his own direct meeting with Mrs Villiers today to discuss finance, the budget and welfare reform, but no members of his party will be attending the planned multi-party gathering at Stormont House.
Last night, the DUP’s Peter Weir said the party will not be engaging with the Irish government on “matters that are exclusively internal Northern Ireland affairs”.
But he added: “As on previous occasions we will talk to the Irish government on issues where there is a clear basis to do so. There are many appropriate areas of co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic that are of benefit to both our countries.”
Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the Irish Government will “participate constructively... in accordance with the framework of the Good Friday Agreement”.
Mr McGuinness’ criticism came after a no-holds-barred attack on Sinn Fein by Mr Robinson in a recent article for this newspaper.
“The present crisis is not the responsibility of the Executive parties,” Mr Robinson wrote, “nor does it arise because the DUP and Sinn Fein can't agree. Sinn Fein alone has caused it and only Sinn Fein is stopping us from moving forward.”
In his own article today, however, Mr McGuinness says his party wants to resolve matters and secure the implementation of existing agreements, such as the deal which should have seen Mitchel McLaughlin become the first republican Speaker of the Assembly this week. The DUP also wants that agreement — on which it admits stalling — “front-loaded” into the talks while Sinn Fein has stressed it should be sorted out on the floor of the Assembly.
“This bad faith and reneging on agreements is no way to do business,” Mr McGuinness said.
And unlike the DUP he said his party has not lost faith in the Stormont system. “[We believe] the institutions and the agreements endorsed by the people are the best and only way forward.”
Alliance leader David Ford, who will be attending today’s talks, said last night: “This is a time for politicians who claim to be leaders to show leadership. It's time for the game-playing to end.”
More than any other single issue, the impasse between the DUP and Sinn Fein on benefit changes has the potential to bring the administration down. Failure to implement national changes will cost our Block Grant more than £200m over the next year and there is no sign of any willingness to find a solution. The prospects for progress do not look good. Difficulty rating: 5/5
Both Sinn Fein and the SDLP do not agree with the need for an opposition. A report from the all-party Assembly and Executive review committee last year concluded: “There is no consensus at present to move to a formal government and opposition model, such as exists in Westminster.”
‘Petitions of concern’, which are increasingly being used as blocking mechanisms, requiring a majority of both unionists and nationalists on any motion, are also an area on which no consensus for change has emerged. Difficulty rating: 4/5
The DUP wants the issue of electing a new Speaker ‘front-loaded’ into the talks, while Sinn Fein, who lost out on the position leaving the Assembly without its most senior official, insists it should be sorted out by MLAs on the floor of the chamber. Again, early progress looks unlikely.
Difficulty rating: 4/5
Size of Assembly
Both the DUP and Sinn Fein have signalled a willingness to examine reducing the Assembly from 108 members to around 90. But this is unlikely to become a reality before the Assembly election, so don’t expect a numbers squeeze, or reduction of departments, anytime soon.
Difficulty rating: 4/5
They were the main reason the Haass talks were set up — following the six weeks of mayhem and protests which followed Belfast City Council’s decision to move away from displaying the flag all year — but also the issue on which least progress was made. Flying the Union flag on designated days, or all year round on council and government buildings, along with a potential new regional flag, were all considered but in the end he recommended a new ‘commission on identity, culture and tradition’. If anything, attitudes appear to have hardened.
Difficulty rating: 5/5
There is something to build on here from Haass, who suggested an ‘office for parades, select commemorations and related protests’ and an ‘authority for public events adjudication’ — an independent regulator — as well as a code of conduct obliging march organisers to guarantee respect for parade determinations. Six months from the next marching season lends hope to the prospect of progress.
Difficulty rating: 3/5
This was the area which, surprisingly, most progress was made on under the Haass umbrella. Almost six years on from the Eames/Bradley blueprint on dealing with the past, he and Meghan O’Sullivan suggested a new ‘historical investigations unit’ taking records from completed HET and Police Ombudsman cases as well as investigations which have not yet started, with a view to seeking prosecutions. But while nationalists signed on for the Haass package, unionists and Alliance stepped back. But the years since has demonstrated the needs of victims and survivors are not going away.
Difficulty rating: 3/5