15 February 2006

Parties demand Blair spells out plan

Belfast Telegraph

By Noel McAdam
15 February 2006

Prime Minister Tony Blair was today coming under pressure to spell out the Government's plans - and timetable - for work towards restoration of the Assembly.

Ulster Unionists were urging the Prime Minister to spell out his intentions while the SDLP warned that giving MI5 the lead role for intelligence gathering could undermine the political process.

The DUP was also due to meet Mr Blair this afternoon, with the focus on its demands for a raft of confidence-building measures for unionist and loyalist areas - including the severance package for the Royal Irish Regiment.

UUP leader Sir Reg Empey said today: "We will be trying to establish the basis upon which the Government intends to conduct the talks. The DUP says the (Good Friday) Agreement is dead. Is this what the PM thinks?"

The UUP delegation, including North Down MP Sylvia Hermon, deputy leader Danny Kennedy and senior negotiator Alan McFarland, said they would also warn Mr Blair against the continued strategy of "side deals" and "concessions".

With the devolution of policing and justice legislation due tomorrow, SDLP leader Mark Durkan warned: "While the Government gives with the one hand technical legislation facilitating the devolution of justice and policing, it is taking away with the other intelligence gathering from the PSNI and giving it to the faceless men of MI5.

"This weakens accountability, it is bad for policing and bad for politics. It must be challenged."

Tomorrow both the UUP and SDLP are due to attend detailed discussions with Political Development Minister David Hanson which could include mechanisms to restore Stormont.

Then on Monday the parties are back at Hillsborough Castle for a second day-long session of separate meetings co-chaired by Secretary of State Peter Hain and the Republic's Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern.

A senior Government source said "depending on how things go" over the next few days Mr Blair would "maybe" be in Belfast by the end of the month.

Sinn Fein is also due to see the Prime Minister before his long-anticipated visit.

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