Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness has warned of “deep trouble” if there is no deal on policing and justice by Christmas.
Mr McGuinness’s comments came after talks in Belfast with the 26 County Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheal Martin, held in connection with a meting of the North-South Ministerial Council.
At a subsequent press conference which Mr Robinson did not attend, Mr McGuinness said: “What absolutely is an imperative is to have an agreement on the transfer of power, and a date for the transfer of power, before Christmas. I have to say if it slips past Christmas we are in deep trouble.”
The goal of transferring policing and justice powers from the Westminster parliament in London to the Six County administration in Belfast has proven elusive since it emerged as part of the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.
Sinn Fein and the Dublin government are keen to get a timeline soon for move but the DUP, led by Mr Robinson, have raised a variety of obstacles to the move over the years.
Yesterday’s comments marked a change in tone for Mr McGuinness, who has normally expressed optimism regarding the possibility of progress on the issue.
The DUP, meanwhile, appeared to pull back from a threat to abandon the talks unless the new PSNI Chief Matt Baggott scrapped a plan to phase out the full-time PSNI reserve.
The plan is one of the yet unimplemented recommendations of the Patten Commission on police reform, which followed from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Last week, Baggott said there was no operation reason to retain the almost exclusively Protestant police reserve, provoking unionist anger and leading DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson to declare it a precondition that Baggott changed his opinion on the matter.
Mr Robinson, after leading a party delegation in talks with Mr Baggott at police headquarters in Belfast, said he accepted as an “imperative” that Mr Baggott must have “operational independence”.
Responding to Mr McGuinness, he said: “Let me make it abundantly clear, the DUP will not be pushed about by any threat. Indeed, if people continue to make those kind of threats, it is more likely to have us stalling the negotiating processes rather than continue, because we will not negotiate under threat.”
Mr Robinson said the DUP wanted justice powers devolved but, referring to the timescale, added: “If that requires us to take time beyond that which is set out by the Deputy First Minister then we will take that time.”
Unless a calendar date is agreed soon it is likely to become more difficult as the parties face into a Westminster election campaign.
Yet Mr Robinson again dangled a carrot with a claim that a deal was still possible by Christmas.
“If we can have all of the issues resolved before then, we are not holding back on the matter; we are not dragging our feet,” he said.
The DUP leader said the key issue was that the PSNI had the necessary resources and experience to carry out its duties to gain public confidence.
“We have made it very clear that, in relation to policing and justice there’s been only one precondition, there’s always been only one precondition and that precondition relates to the necessity to have public confidence in the devolution of policing and justice powers,” he said.
However, the DUP leader has not drawn back from his previous precondition that an agreement must involve the abolition of the Parades Commission, which adjudicates on the routes of sectarian marches across the North.
‘UNIONIST POLICING MINISTER’
Sinn Fein dangled a carrot of its own when the party’s spokesman on policing Alex Maskey has said he would have no objection to a unionist minister for justice some time in the future.
At this stage it is expected that neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP will initially seek the justice ministry and that the high-profile job is instead expected to be offered to the Alliance Party.
The nationalist SDLP have complained, to little effect, that under existing legislation it should be offered to them.
Asked when there would be a unionist minister, Mr Maskey said all that had been agreed with the DUP so far was that neither party would offer itself for the position until at least 2012.
“The agreement we have reached is extant until May 2012 and that was to get through this assembly term and through the next assembly election,” he said.
“The logic of this was to long-finger that argument... Basically [the DUP] are saying they don’t want Sinn Fein in the department. So we are saying fair enough, we can resolve that.
“As a party our primary focus here is to get the transfer. It is not as to who the minister will be.
“I would like it to be a Sinn Fein minister and there will be a Sinn Fein minister in due course but that is up the road.
“Our primary focus is to have transfer of power away from Britain - which is not accountable here - into the hands of locally elected representatives.
“And it is done in a way in which the accountability is on an open, transparent basis and there are all the checks and balances built in that no minister can abuse his or her post. The same thing will apply to the justice minister.
“So would I have an objection to a unionist minister of justice? No, I won’t because the system will be robust so that no minister can abuse his or her position.”