06 March 2006

Crucial talks on North postponed


05/03/2006 - 20:44:10

The British government has postponed talks that were to have taken place between Irish and British ministers and the north’s political parties from this week.

They were to have met at Stormont on Wednesday – the date set some weeks ago by Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain as a deadline for a first stage agreement on possible rule changes for a future Assembly.

The talks are off because Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair are meeting in London on Wednesday and Peter Hain and Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern are expected to be attending.

In Belfast, there was a suspicion calling off the talks had more to do with a lack of progress than anything else. Last month Mr Blair pulled out of an expected visit to Belfast to meet he parties – again because there was little or no sign of a breakthrough in the political impasse.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Reg Empey said he was not surprised the Belfast talks had been cancelled.

“It was no surprise to learn that the first deadline of the present talks will come and go on Wednesday without it being a deadline at all,” said Mr Empey. “Wednesday’s meetings between the parties, Peter Hain and Dermot Ahern are to be cancelled. While an embarrassment for the government it was better to call ’time out’ on what was becoming a process that did not have the support of most of the parties.”

His party had warned the British government not to start its search for a new breakthrough from the 2004 deal with Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionists which had failed and from which Sinn Féin was “rowing away from as fast as possible”.

A more strategic approach was needed, he said, expressing the hope that the Ahern-Blair meeting would provide it.

A Downing Street spokesman said the north’s parties would not be invited to take part in the Wednesday meeting and there was little likelihood of either a joint British-Irish news conference or statement afterwards.

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