19 April 2006

Parties warn ‘GFA cannot be revised’

Daily Ireland

‘Northern Ireland is in great danger of being left behind’ – Hain

By Eamonn Houston

Nationalist leaders last night warned the British government that the Good Friday Agreement cannot be revised or diluted.
Sinn Féin chairman Mitchel McLaughlin and SDLP leader Mark Durkan cautioned direct-rule secretary of state Peter Hain against amending the 1998 agreement in an effort to appease the Democratic Unionists.
The British House of Commons heard yesterday that Tony Blair’s government is to push emergency legislation through the parliament to recall the North’s mothballed assembly.
Mr Hain told MPs that an emergency bill would enable 108 assembly members to gather at Stormont on May 15 for a first round of talks aimed at reviving devolution.
The North’s assembly was suspended amid allegations of a republican spyring in October 2002 with nationalist parties demanding its revival ever since.
Mr Hain has threatened MLAs with a salary ban and no elections to the body beyond this year. The Irish and British governments have also indicated that they are prepared to “go it alone” on a partnership basis in the absence of political agreement in the North. He said that the North was in danger of being “left behind”.
Mr Hain said yesterday: “The experiences of devolution in Scotland and in Wales have demonstrated the huge benefits which local politicians exercising locally accountable power can reap.
“Both nations have seen increased self-confidence, increased economic growth, increased social cohesion and an increased international profile.
“Northern Ireland has also undergone a positive transitional experience but the potential of full devolution remains tantalisingly out of reach.
“The blunt truth is that Northern Ireland is in great danger of being left behind as, not only the rest of the United Kingdom strides on successfully, but as the Republic of Ireland continues to be one of the biggest global success stories of our generation.
“It is now for Northern Ireland’s politicians to catch up and catch up fast.
“Northern Ireland’s people demand nothing less.”
Sinn Féin chairman Mitchel McLaughlin said last night that his party will enter the May talks arguing that the Good Friday Agreement should remain intact and for the immediate election of a first and deputy first minister.
“As we have said before, it is up to Peter Hain, the Taoiseach and Tony Blair to form a power-sharing executive. Sinn Féin’s sole intention for May 15 is the election of a fully functional executive and assembly. We don’t want a half-way house or a shadow assembly. Our position is clear.”
With the Assembly being recalled on May 15, Mr Hain said the bill which would be introduced this week was designed to enable the 108 MLAs to take up their responsibilities next month with the express purpose of electing first and deputy first ministers on a cross-community basis and a multi-party executive within six weeks.
If that could not be achieved, MLAs would be given a further 12-week period to form a devolved government.
The deadline for the restoration of the institutions is November 24.
SDLP leader, Mark Durkan welcomed the moves, but warned against the DUP being allowed to block political progress.
“The DUP have, of course, the right to seek changes to it and agree them with the rest of us. But they do not have the right to block devolution and the Agreement.”
Mr Durkan said that the mandate for the Agreement outweighed the mandate of the DUP.
“The truth is, as the Secretary of State full well knows, it wasn’t anything to do with the institutions of the Agreement that brought about suspension. It was the failure to end paramilitary activity and the failure to share power.
“The two governments must stand strong for the Agreement and not for the DUP. The SDLP expects the Irish government, in particular, to be vigilant against DUP demands to upend it.”
East Belfast DUP MP Peter Robinson claimed that one of the weaknesses in the two governments’ plan for reviving devolved government was its belief that unionists could be forced into a government featuring Sinn Féin by imposing a timetable for progress.
“The issue is not to be determined by the clock but whether various conditions have been met,” he said.
“It will be determined by whether paramilitary and criminal activity has ended and that is the critical factor as far as this party is concerned. We want to move into devolution. We want to have an executive in Northern Ireland but the principle of the mandate that we have indicates that we can only share power with those who are committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means.”

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