Empey slams Executive's 'suspended animation'
Northern Ireland's government has been locked in suspended animation by the dispute between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein, it was claimed today.
Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Sir Reg Empey said that the stand-off between the parties had seriously disrupted the work of government, with cabinet meetings blocked since June.
Opening an Assembly debate demanding the Executive meet immediately, he responded to speculation that the warring parties had brokered a deal by warning against a short term fudge.
"This debate presents the First and Deputy First Minister with the opportunity to explain to the rest of us why our government has been placed in suspended animation," said the Ulster Unionist leader.
"For the ongoing and long drawn-out stalemate is making a mockery of the DUP claim that they had brought an end to stop-go devolution.
"And could I suggest that whatever solution is found to the present impasse isn't simply another fudge to get us out of this latest hole.
"Northern Ireland needs stability. It needs an Assembly and an Executive committee which are meeting and working in harness.
"It needs a mechanism that will deal with the inevitable hiccups which naturally arise in politics, it doesn't need months of stalemate."
The DUP and Sinn Fein are divided over a series of issues, including the devolution of policing and justice powers from Westminster.
Republicans point out that the St Andrews deal of 2006, that established the power-sharing government, set May this year as target for the move.
But the DUP has said it will not agree to the transfer of powers until it believes there is sufficient support within the unionist community.
The two parties have been involved in protracted negotiations to end the deadlock.
Over the weekend both parties briefed their senior representatives on the progress of the talks, fuelling speculation that an agreement is close.
First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein's deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness will tomorrow brief a Stormont Committee that is considering the devolution of policing powers.
Today's UUP-sponsored Assembly debate on the political stand-off saw parties express concerns that the failure to hold Executive meetings had undermined efforts to tackle economic problems hitting society.
Sir Reg and party colleague Michael McGimpsey, who are both ministers in the power-sharing government, asked for an Executive meeting to be held immediately in line with ministers' pledge of office.
They accepted an amendment put forward by the DUP which noted that both unionist parties, together with the nationalist SDLP, were prepared to meet and blamed Sinn Fein for the stand-off.
But Sinn Fein's Caral Ni Chuilin said unionists had refused to engage in genuine partnership government and had blocked policies of importance to republicans.
"The problem we face is not that the Executive is not meeting, but that there are some in this house who have yet to come to terms with what partnership government means," she said.
"What we should be considering is not when the Executive meets (but) when it does meet, will it meet in real partnership government."
She cited republican demands for agreement on the transfer of justice powers and for movement on issues such as the introduction of an act to protect the Irish language.
Ms Ni Chuilin said her party's unionist critics had not suggested solutions to these problems and said her party was interested in establishing a government agenda that delivered for all people.
The nationalist SDLP told Sinn Fein it had failed to negotiate what it wanted in the St Andrews deal and that now everyone was being made to suffer.
"They played their cards badly, they negotiated badly, they negotiated a defective deal," said the SDLP's Alban Maginness.
He pointed to a recent speech by Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams where he compared unionists opposed to change with white supremacists in South Africa.
"How can you build trust and confidence with the leading unionist party... by insulting them?" said Mr Maginness.
"How can the DUP build confidence with Sinn Fein if they are constantly attacking them?"
SDLP leader Mark Durkan said both Sinn Fein and the DUP had worked together to carve-up power in the Executive and criticised the failure to agree a renewed budget.
DUP members insisted the blame for the block on Executive meetings should be levelled at Sinn Fein.
"We are not going to be intimidated into policing and justice," said the DUP's Willie McCrea.
"We are not going to be threatened into the devolution of policing and justice. As far as policing and justice is concerned, when there is confidence in the community, then that situation will be looked at."
The DUP's Edwin Poots attacked demands for Irish language legislation and said workers losing jobs as a result of the economic crisis did not see the issue as a priority.
"Ask them do they want to sign-on in Irish or do they want a job to go to?" he said.