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Northern Ireland parties fail to avert crisis

Executive fails to meet First Minister’s deadline

Stormont
Stormont

By Noel McAdam

Stormont's power-sharing government was today tipping towards crisis as the biggest row since the return of devolution kept the Executive in deep freeze.

The prospect of an end to the three-month gap between Executive meetings faded as Sinn Fein refused to give the necessary go-ahead for a scheduled session this afternoon.

Instead the party was holding out for the DUP to at least indicate some kind of timeframe in which they envisage the transfer of policing and justice powers can take place — as Prime Minister Gordon Brown demanded earlier this week.

The refusal to relax their boycott will bust First Minister Peter Robinson’s deadline, after which he warned of “serious consequences for the good government of Northern Ireland”.

Senior sources today indicated the DUP leader will hold back on any immediate action — such as initiating a High Court case accusing Sinn Fein Ministers of breaching their code of office — in the hope a meeting will still happen.

The DUP that believes it would have to go to court, and win its case, before it could ask the paramilitary watchdog, the Independent Monitoring Commission, to adjudicate on the conduct of Sinn Fein Ministers.

Behind-the-scenes talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein continued this week with some progress being made on the future of the Maze national stadium project, Irish language and even, according to some sources, the almost intractable primary to secondary school transfer proposals.

But, while there also appears to have been movement on the modalities of policing and justice — the way a new Department would work — no advance has been made on the core issue of when the responsibility might switch from Westminster, now almost five months after the British and Irish Governments’ target date in the St Andrews Agreement.

Secretary of State Shaun Woodward and the Republic’s Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern were keeping a watching eye on developments at Stormont as they met at Hillsborough Castle this morning for talks on a range of issues, including policing and justice.

The stand-off came as the DUP appeared gloomy over the outcome of the Fermanagh council by-election, where its senior figure, Arlene Foster, is facing a strong challenge from Sinn Fein.

There were early indications the final result could be close after a bitter battle sparked after Ulster Unionists refused to agree a co-option following the death of veteran councillor Joe Dodds, the father of Finance Minister Nigel Dodds.

Meanwhile up at Stormont the DUP’s six ministers, including Junior Minister Jeffrey Donaldson, were expected to attend a mock session in the Executive’s office, to discuss growing concerns over the cost of living and energy price hikes, though it was unclear whether they will be joined by their Ulster Unionist and SDLP partners.

Such a meeting would have no legal status and could not conduct any business but is being viewed as a means of attempting to isolate Sinn Fein, who in turn will dismiss it as a stunt.

As the face-off between the two main Executive parties continued, there was speculation a meeting could be convened by early next week, although both Mr Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness are expected to attend a breakfast event at the Labour Party Conference in Manchester next Monday.

An exchange of letters between Mr McGuinness and Mr Robinson late yesterday failed to achieve any progress for a meeting today.

Belfast Telegraph

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