15 February 2006

Prime minister 'cancels NI visit'


A planned visit to Northern Ireland next week by Prime Minister Tony Blair will not go ahead, according to Downing Street sources.

The sources said after meeting the DUP, UUP and SDLP on Wednesday, "Mr Blair was developing an idea of the direction in which the government should go".

It is understood Mr Blair wants to meet Sinn Fein and reflect on the views of all the parties before making a speech.

The DUP's Ian Paisley said he was "pessimistic" about any further talks.

"There is no agreement, there is a great gulf fixed, the prime minister must do something," he said after meeting Mr Blair at Downing Street.

"He must either say, I am going to keep to my promise and my promise was that crime would go, terrorism would go and then we would go forward."


"Now if he doesn't keep to that we have said that as far as we are concerned there is no use talking."

Speaking after meeting Mr Blair, SDLP leader Mark Durkan said he believed the prime minister remained focussed on the political process.

"Certainly he didn't give us a sense that he is on a count down to his exit, he seemed to be more interested in our ideas for a countdown to restoration of the institutions," he said.

"I think he did show a sense of urgency and a sense of purpose and certainly he had a lot of sympathy with the points that we were making, that parties wouldn't get real until the governments were very clear that we had a real date with democratic responsibility."

Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey said his party were broadly in favour of government plans to enable a quick assembly election in the autumn.

"We welcomed the news that the secretary of state is to get power to call a snap assembly election if he chooses," he said.

"This will give an impetus to the process provided that, again, it is done with maximum transparency and openness in order to achieve the necessary public confidence."

Assembly elections

It is expected that Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain will be given powers to call a snap assembly election later this year.

The move would allow Mr Hain to call a poll as early as the autumn, rather than wait until the spring of 2007.

It is believed it will be included in new legislation to be unveiled on Thursday.

At present it is fixed for the spring of 2007, but an early poll could be used to endorse a new deal.

Mr Hain, in the past, has said he is not interested in calling an election to another suspended assembly.

The new bill is expected to make new provisions for the devolution of policing and justice power so that a speedy transition could be made once the assembly reaches agreement on the matter.

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