Two days of talks in Belfast this week have again failed to produce the breakthrough which appeared imminent during intensive negotiations last weekend in southern England.
Divisions between pro and anti-agreement parties have widened following the acrimonious end to two days of talks at Stormont parliamentary buildings on Wednesday night.
Nationalist negotiators are dismayed that a major IRA concession last weekend has failed to end the efforts of Ian Paisley’s DUP to undo key elements of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The DUP has made a number of technical proposals for changes to the operation of the Belfast Assembly which would have the effect of ending power-sharing with nationalists. The chief mechanism which they have suggested is ministerial “accountability” to the Assembly or to other Ministers, seen by nationalists as a recipe for institutionalising the current political deadlock.
Following the failure of the Leeds Castle talks, there have beeen suggestions that proposals by the Irish and British governments could be made public in an attempt to resolve the political deadlock. However, there is still no indication that this is about to take place.
British Direct Ruler Paul Murphy claimed progress was continuing.
“It was disappointing we couldn’t finish things, but the fact is that the largest party [the DUP] is not a pro-agreement party and the others are pro-agreement. This raised questions of trust,” he said.
Mr Murphy said officials were still working on joint proposals with the Irish Government, “but we’re not talking about a long time”, he said.
The SDLP accused the DUP of “not engaging” during a three-hour meeting at Parliament Buildings.
A spokesman said: “There was no movement on anything of any significance.” The party accused the DUP of “waiting for the British government to try to cut them a better deal”.
The SDLP and Sinn Féin together are holding out against unionist proposals which enable executive ministers to challenge each others’ decisions.
They also oppose suggestions that Assembly members should have the means to overturn unpopular ministerial decisions, exercise more control over the executive’s dealings with the Dublin Government and change the system for voting first and deputy first ministers.
David Ervine, leader of the Progressive Unionists, accused the DUP of being “culturally unable” to signing up to anything with Sinn Féin.
For the Ulster Unionists, Mr Michael McGimpsey said the concentration of debate on Assembly structures risked letting the IRA off the hook on questions of decommissioning and the ending of paramilitary activity.
“Where is the IRA statement? “Is the war over? Is ‘melt away’ the same as disband? Everyone is so fixated by the paper chase and political geekery up at Stormont that pressure on republicans is being forgotten about.”
Sinn Féin Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness MP speaking after a meeting in London today stated that ‘Sinn Féin has consistently said that there can be no dilution of the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement and that the role of the British government must be defend the core principles of the Agreement’.
Speaking in Belfast today Mr McGuinness said:
“It is clear that the progress achieved at Leeds Castle is based upon a strong defence of the core principles of the Good Friday Agreement - power sharing, all Ireland Institutions and Equality. The two governments, and particularly the British government are in absolutely no doubt that there can be no comprehensive agreement if there is any attempt to dilute these fundamental principles.
“This week has not seen the progress that was made at the Leeds Castle talks built upon. We have not seen the resolute defence of these principles by the two governments. Sinn Féin has consistently said that there can be no dilution of the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement and that the role of the British government is to defend the core principles of the Agreement.
“Progress on achieving comprehensive agreement, involving the DUP, is only possible if the DUP move away from their anti-agreement position.
“The DUP want nationalists and republicans to trust them. Yet the track record of unionism in the Assembly, and tellingly in unionist dominated councils is one of exclusion, discrimination and refusal to share power. This is why any dilution of the principles of the all Ireland, power sharing and equality aspects of the agreement is totally unacceptable to nationalists and republicans.
“There is a particular responsibility on the two governments to spell out this reality to the DUP. Sinn Féin is the largest nationalist party, the largest pro-agreement party and we will not agree or sign up to anything that dilutes or undermines the core principles of the Good Friday Agreement.”