15 January 2006

Hain says parties 'have got to talk to each other'

Liam Clarke
15 January 2006

THE Northern Ireland secretary of state has said the British government is prepared to consider setting up something short of the power sharing executive laid down in the Good Friday agreement. But Peter Hain said that such an arrangement would have to be an interim measure and would require cross-party support.

It is the first time that the government has conceded that a rolling devolution model might be needed to build trust before full power sharing can be agreed. But there is a risk that such an arrangement might become permanent.

The suggestion will be treated with suspicion by Sinn Fein, which fears that the DUP will never enter government with it as long as there is an alternative.

“The end has got to be a power sharing executive,” Hain said.

“The argument is whether you need an interim stage in order to get to that objective. The parties have got to talk to each other. There is no point in saying ‘take it or leave it’. That is not in prospect.”

Hain and Dermot Ahern, the Irish foreign minister, are preparing to launch talks with the Northern Ireland parties after a report from the International Monitoring Commission (IMC), which is expected to say that the IRA has been largely inactive since it disarmed last year.

The DUP is preparing proposals for a law-making assembly that would not require full power sharing. Executive functions could be carried out by British ministers, civil servants or some local politicians.

Peter Robinson, deputy leader of the DUP, said: “There are a range of possibilities and I’m not committing myself to one model at this stage.”

He said a legislative assembly, in which all elected members would share in decision making, was likely to figure in his party’s final proposals.

Robinson suggested that his proposals would not be bound by a timetable. “The trust necessary for executive power sharing involving Sinn Fein doesn’t exist,” he said. “Trust has to be built up over time so that people have confidence that violence has been left behind.

“If the secretary of state is setting deadlines, then we are far better to have a lower level of devolution and make some progress rather than allowing the opportunity to pass because the level of trust for the higher level of devolution isn’t there.”

Hain said he was aware of the direction of the DUP proposals and the Ulster Unionists had put ideas to him before Christmas.

“I think there has been some inter-party discussion along these lines. We have a framework, but if a different one emerges from inter-party discussion, obviously it will be sensible to explore that.” he said.

Mark Durkan, the SDLP leader, said his party would consider arrangements short of full power-sharing. He has proposed that the Stormont assembly be reconvened and if an executive along the lines set out in the Good Friday agreement cannot be formed, a range of other options should be tried in sequence.

Robinson described the SDLP proposals as a “high-wire act” but added that he was prepared to discuss them.

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein has criticised the Irish government for shelving plans to give presidential pardons to on-the-run terrorists.

Dermot Ahern announced last week that the scheme, which would affect about six people, would not be implemented. This followed the British government’s decision to withdraw its proposals.

Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein said yesterday that the Irish government’s decision was unreasonable. “In the south there is a much smaller number involved,” he said. “But it is still an anomaly which came from the Good Friday agreement and could have been sorted out.”

Kelly, a former hunger striker, was himself on the run for three years after taking part in a mass break-out from the Maze prison in 1983 where he was being held for bombing offences committed in London. He was recaptured in Holland in 1986 when he was found in possession of bomb-making equipment.

The Irish government made it clear months ago that its proposals would not be implemented unless there were parallel arrangements in Britain.

Peter Hain withdrew his bill last week at Sinn Fein’s request.

Last month Gerry Adams told Hain that Sinn Fein would be asking on-the-run terrorists not to avail of the planned legislation because it also benefited members of the security forces who committed offences during the Troubles.

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