Failure to hold elections soon in the Six Counties could spell the end of the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness warned today. As he prepared for a meeting in Dublin with Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, the Mid Ulster MP insisted the Government must set a date for an Assembly election this year if efforts to restore power-sharing were to succeed.
He said: ``The election should have happened in May. It didn't.
``If the election was not to happen this year, I think that would be politically disastrous. I think it would signal to many people the end of the Good Friday Agreement because I don't think people would have any confidence whatsoever, going into a new year, that we would see elections, given the situation we have seen since May of this year.
``We have seen the failure of the British Prime Minister (Tony Blair) to follow the next logical step, when the lifetime of the Assembly was over, by calling elections to the new Assembly.
``So I think it will be politically disastrous for elections not to take place this year and it would be an enormous setback to the work we have all been engaged in over the course of the last few years.''
Mr Blair's decision to cancel elections was criticised by the Irish Government, by politicians in the United States and a range of parties in the North of Ireland. With speculation mounting that an election could take place in November, nationalists have in recent days stepped up pressure for an election date. They have argued an Assembly poll could serve as a deadline in the current efforts to break the political deadlock. However neither London nor Dublin have been willing to state definitively if there will be a poll this autumn.
Mr McGuinness said nationalists and republicans were still waiting to see how Mr Blair was going to implement the Agreement in the face of opposition from unionists and from elements within the British establishment.
He said Sinn Fein, the Irish Government and the nationalist SDLP had delivered ``nationalist and republican Ireland'' for the Agreement.
The former Stormont Education Minister added: ``There has been an abysmal failure on behalf of the British end of the bargain, from the British Prime Minister and unionist leaders, to deliver their contribution to the Agreement.
``What I want to see over the coming period is a recognition on their behalf that they have to go in and bat for this agreement, they have to fight for this and they have to face down the rejectionists within the DUP and within David Trimble's party.''
Mr McGuinness said the setting of an election date would create a new political momentum in the efforts to restore devolution.
Republicans, he said, had been involved in heavy negotiations since the summer which he expected to further intensify in the coming days.
``It will be a matter of putting together a package, a comprehensive agreement and everybody is going to fight their corner,'' the Sinn Fein MP predicted.
``I understand that. The big question is whether there is a willingness on all sides to bring about a set of political arrangements which will see the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement move forward.
``We need to see the restoration of the institutions - both power-sharing in the north and all-Ireland in nature through the North South Ministerial Council.
``Of course, every day people are listening to the ongoing controversy over the Human Rights Commission and the fact that it is broken and needs to be fixed. Three eminent people have resigned and two others have withdrawn from the daily working of the commission. This is a commission which is effectively on its knees.
``So we need to correct the mistakes which have been made and that essentially means dealing with all these issues. From our perspective we intend to see that they are dealt with during the course of the negotiations we are engaged in at the moment.''
Mr McGuinness also said his party wanted the policing issue resolved.
However he insisted that meant getting policing ``right'' by fully implementing the Patten Commission's recommendations and transferring policing and justice powers from Westminster to a devolved administration at Stormont.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams is due to hold face-to-face talks with Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble at Stormont today. It will be the second time they have met over the past week as efforts to restore power-sharing in the Six Counties continue.
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British Secretary of State Paul Murphy was today due to meet his Irish government opposite number, foreign minister Brian Cowen, while Sinn Fein Chief Negotiator Martin McGuiness was also due to meet Mr Cowen in Dublin today.
The round of meetings followed the passage of legislation through the House of Commons in London yesterday creating a new four-member commission for monitoring paramilitary cease-fires and the Good Friday Agreement.
Speaking in London, Sinn Fein North Belfast representative Gerry Kelly was critical of the legislation being brought to establish the Independent Monitoring Commission as ``the result of efforts by the British government to appease unionism further.
``Since it was first established it has been further modified to meet the demands of the various unionist factions,'' he said. ``The principle difficulty with this Commission is the fact that it gives power and authority to a British Minister which fundamentally alters and is outside the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
``Sinn Fein has no problems with accountability, however we will not support mechanisms which fall totally outside the terms of the Agreement.''
Mr Kelly was in London to support the candidacy of Kelly McBride, who is standing in the Brent East by-election today to highlight the continued injustices surrounding the murder of her brother, Peter McBride, in North Belfast in 1992 by a patrol of British soldiers.
He briefed cross-party MPs and the media in London on Wednesday about the current situation with the peace process.
At a press conference, Mr Kelly stressed the urgent need to call the Assembly elections: ``Without doubt elections are a matter of political principle. They are vital if we are to create a new context - create a new dynamic - without that there is no prospect of progress.''
He added that setting a definitive date for elections was not on its own enough. ``We have to remember the last time Mr Blair slapped republicans and the Taoiseach in the face by cancelling elections.'' he said, adding that this created a ``a deep well of anger and frustration''. He said even with an election date ``there is no guarantee of future initiatives from republicans.
``Moving things forward is not just the responsibility of republicans. There is a collective responsibility on all of us.''
The signatories, including MPs Kevin McNamara, John McDonnell and Baroness Harris of Richmond, are ``gravely concerned that the British government has acted unilaterally to suspend the institutions and cancel planned elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly with no date set for a new ballot''.