13 May 2005

IOL

Hain sails into storm over peace process

13/05/2005 - 15:41:27

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Peter Hain was at the centre of his first political storm in Northern Ireland tonight after he was accused of rewriting British government policy there.

Democratic Unionist leader the Rev Ian Paisley lambasted the new Northern Ireland Secretary after he told the DUP and Sinn Féin in his first interview since taking over at Stormont there could only be forward movement in the peace process.

With the DUP insisting the British government should press ahead with setting up devolved government without Sinn Féin or devise a more accountable system of direct rule, Mr Hain said yesterday: “There was an agreement seven years ago endorsed by referendum, both north and south, in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and no agreement in modern living memory has had that type of endorsement.

“Therefore you cannot just discard part of it. I understand both where the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin are coming from but that’s not the end of the story.

“I think both parties know that that is not the end of the story.

“Certainly in my preliminary discussions with them, very good discussions, I think everybody realises that there is no reverse gear on this process.

“It’s what forward gear you take. Do you stay in neutral or select a forward gear?”

But his comments drew an angry reaction from Mr Paisley who said the minister was going back on promises on changes to the Good Friday Agreement which were made to the DUP by the British Prime Minister and Secretary of State in last year’s negotiations.

The North Antrim MP said: “Before we were prepared to take part in the previous talks we told the (British) government we had to get this matter sorted once and for all and we asked: was there going to be an opportunity to the amend the Agreement?

“If not, we had nothing to say.

“We went into talks on the fundamentals of the Agreement and asked them to define what they were. They were twofold.

“Firstly, all parties at the table must be in agreement that there must be a democratic government where every person in it was bound by the democratic process only.

“Secondly as far as the Agreement was concerned, the only part that had to be agreed was that all parties, if elected and provided they adhered to the first principle, should be in government.

“We accepted those and on that basis went into the talks and agreed certain changes to the Agreement.

“Now we have a Secretary of State coming into Northern Ireland and within days he is telling us that the Agreement was the greatest thing in living memory, giving it his endorsement and insisting no part can be discarded.

“We have to know has the British government’s policy changed? If that is the case, let them spell it out to the people of Northern Ireland. Let (Prime Minister) Tony Blair speak.

“Mr Hain better realise that he is not in some Welsh valley. He is in Northern Ireland which is part and parcel of the United Kingdom and which will still be part of the United Kingdom.

“Is he actually telling us now as far as this election is concerned it is going to have no influence over what the British Government is going to do?”

During last week’s local government and Westminster elections, the DUP greatly strengthened its mandate, capturing three extra House of Commons seats and 52 more councillors across Northern Ireland.

The Ulster Unionists’ vote dramatically slumped, with David Trimble among four MPs who lost seats and 40 councillors also among the casualties.

Mr Trimble quit as UUP leader this week and tomorrow the 108 party executive will decide during an elections post mortem how they will handle any leadership election.

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