20 February 2006

Row as NI talks session collapses

BBC


The British and Irish governments are hosting talks at Stormont

Plans for round-table talks by Northern Ireland political parties at Stormont have collapsed amid acrimony.

The plan was to have the DUP, SDLP, UUP and Alliance at one session of talks on Monday, without Sinn Fein.

This would have been followed by a second round in which Sinn Fein replaced the DUP - who have refused to sit down with the republican party.

However, Sinn Fein angily rejected the plan. SF leader Gerry Adams accused the government of "pandering to the DUP".

At a news conference on Monday, he said the government was "naive".

Mr Adams said his party found the plan to have separate meetings "totally unacceptable". It proved that Ian Paisley, not the governments, was in charge of the talks he said.

Meetings

The row followed a series of meetings between NI Secretary Peter Hain, Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern and local parties at Stormont.

Speaking afterwards, Mr Hain said people needed to realise that both governments were "for real" in securing political progress.

"We tried a particular formula and that didn't work," he said.

"Nobody would have been excluded, there were parallel meetings consecutively on the same issues with all the parties.

"We decided there was no point in proceeding since they were not all-party discussions as we had intended."

The Ulster Unionist Party was also involved in a row with the government when it insisted on sending only a notetaker to the talks.


Peter Hain and Dermot Ahern are chairing the talks

Earlier on Monday, Mr Hain set a deadline of 8 March for the parties to agree amendments to new legislation on the assembly and other issues.

He said he was aiming for progress in the spring to see the assembly reopen.

It means that the parties have less than a month to agree changes to new legislation on the assembly and other matters.

The British and Irish governments are stepping up pressure on the parties to compromise and restore the assembly, which was suspended in October 2003 following allegations of a republican spy ring at the Northern Ireland Office.

Speaking after his party's meeting with Mr Hain, DUP leader Ian Paisley said they had raised a number of issues, primarily compensation for Royal Irish Regiment members facing disbandment.

He said that if there was going to be devolution, IRA criminality had to end, irrespective of any time limit the government set.

The DUP chose not to meet the Irish foreign minister. Mr Ahern said the decision was disappointing, but ministers would persevere.

Transfer

As he arrived for talks, SDLP leader Mark Durkan said the only baseline for progress was the Good Friday Agreement.

He accused Sinn Fein of agreeing to a shadow assembly in the comprehensive agreement which it almost struck with the DUP in December 2004.

It is the second time this month that the two ministers have brought the parties together.

North-south relations form part of the discussions.

Last week, the government unveiled legislation aimed at lending momentum to the political process.

A bill introduced by Mr Hain would enable him to transfer policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland politicians.

He would also be given the power to call a snap assembly election.

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

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