25 April 2006

DUP pledges to consult speedily on an executive with Sinn Féin

Belfast Telegraph

Political correspondent Noel McAdam travelled to Killarney yesterday for the DUP's ground-breaking presentation to the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body

25 April 2006

The DUP's planned extensive consultation with the unionist community to decide on a power-sharing Executive with Sinn Fein could take weeks rather than months, it emerged last night.

But the process may not even begin until the next report from ceasefire watchdog, the Independent Monitoring Commission, which is not expected until October.

A senior party delegation told the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body meeting in Killarney yesterday that it wanted to see stable self-government for Northern Ireland established as quickly as possible.

And both deputy leader Peter Robinson and Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson told the assembled MPs and TDs they believe the consultations, which would precede any final party decision on going into government with republicans, could be completed within weeks.

Mr Robinson, however, warned that, at its present pace, the republican movement will not meet the current deadlines with the Government threatening to shut down the Assembly without a devolution deal by November 24.

The four-strong delegation, which included MPs Nigel Dodds and Iris Robinson, faced just over 50 minutes of questioning after a half-hour address by Mr Robinson.

The DUP made political history as the first unionist party to address the body, which includes Scottish, Welsh, Channel Islands and Isle of Man representatives.

Questioners included Sinn Fein TD Arthur Morgan who apologised for sitting with his back to the delegation, because of the way conference chairing was organised, and asked when the DUP envisaged its consultations could begin.

Mr Donaldson said the listening exercise would start when the party believed the potential exists for moving forward towards a Stormont executive.

"It shouldn't be any longer than a number of weeks," he added.

Mr Donaldson also agreed with Cork East TD Joe Sherlock that Northern Ireland was becoming increasingly segregated - and with Cavan TD Seymour Crawford that the province continues to lose its undergraduates.

More Protestants are living in predominantly Protestant areas and more Catholics in predominantly Catholic areas than five, ten or 15 years ago, Mr Donaldson said, but a major cause was the influence of paramilitaries "on both sides".

"We can have all the agreements we want at a political level, but unless we deal with these problems on the ground that are causing greater polarisation ... we are only applying a sticking plaster over a very deep wound," he added.

Earlier, Mr Robinson said his hope would be that the consultations would last weeks rather than "months upon months".

But he also made clear the DUP wants to share its "homeland" with parties holding different and conflicting political ideals.

"We accept the legitimacy of those who seek - using solely democratic and peaceful means - to advance their aspiration of a united Ireland," he told the gathering. "And, with no less legitimacy, we will - using solely democratic and peaceful means - oppose them."

There were no angry exchanges during the afternoon presentation, during which members of the body which unionists have boycotted for 16 years praised the courage, initiative and "powerful contribution" of the DUP team.

Mr Dodds said when unionists heard talk of urgency and deadlines, they asked why republicans had been given so much time - with the IRA, for example, still refusing to admit responsibility for the Northern Bank raid.

The North Belfast MP said concern in the Republic over sharing government with Sinn Fein was "very understandable. How can you not expect unionists who have lived on the receiving end of murder and mayhem for 35 years not to feel the need for caution."

Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern, who met the DUP delegation briefly in private afterwards, said their visit had been a "small, but very significant" step and he hoped the body could become the forum for all strands of political opinion on the island.

But Mr Ahern also made clear the November 24 deadline was "real and very real". Without agreement by then, the Irish and British Governments would maximise implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and "bring forward" the work of North-South co-operation.

"It is our responsibility to do so," Mr Ahern said.

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