Nationalists have reacted angrily to a suggestion by the British government that it could make significant departures from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
British Direct Ruler Paul Murphy had intended to tell delegates at the British Labour Party’s annual conference on Tuesday that the North’s suspended political institutions must be “responsive to changing circumstances”.
Hardline unionists have been insisting on changes which would allow them to overrule Sinn Féin Ministers in a “power-sharing” Six County administration in Belfast.
Ian Paisley’s DUP are now demanding a new Agreement as well as an IRA move to disarm and disband -- a prospect raised in intensive talks over the past two weeks -- but have continued to refuse to hold direct talks with Sinn Féin.
Paul Murphy collapsed at the conference centre in Brighton just before he was due to deliver an address containing hints of further concessions to unionism. He is believed to have suffered from heat exhaustion and has taken time off to recuperate.
The speech, which was published Tuesday night, said: “The Agreement was designed to grow prosperity from peace.
“But its fundamental purpose, of course, was to be the roots of a new peace, a new politics and power-sharing for Northern Ireland.
“That requires the institutions of the Agreement to develop.
“They must be vital and responsive to changing circumstance, not sculpted from stone, beyond amendment or improvement.
“And the Agreement itself allowed for such growth. That’s why it had an in-built review mechanism.”
Mr Murphy’s speech said the current talks could not alter the “fundamentals” of the Good Friday Agreement.
But the talks had also pointed the way to how the Assembly and the cross-border institutions could be “improved”, he would have said.
Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness said the British government could not make unilateral changes to the Good Friday Agreement.
“The Irish Government and the political parties have ownership of the Agreement also,” Mr McGuinness reminded ministers.
“The British Government has not yet shared its proposals with Sinn Féin.
“Sinn Féin will not support changes which will alter the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement.
“We will oppose any attempt to diminish the Agreement. We look to the Irish government to do the same.”
But nationalists were told to start preparing their community for change.
Democratic Unionist MP Gregory Campbell claimed the SDLP and Sinn Féin had belatedly woken up to the changes which would take place to devolution. It came as his party leader the Rev Ian Paisley travelled to Dublin to meet Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.
The Derry MP said: “The DUP remains absolutely resolute in our conviction that the IRA must be out of guns and out of business, once that is done there needs to be a satisfactory system of Government to unionists as well as nationalists.
“These are the reasons the 1998 deal failed, there was no IRA being redundant and the system was loaded against unionism.
“If we have to take flak for remaining consistent on these core issues then so be it, we are not moving from them.”
PAISLEY OPTS FOR GREY SKIES
Meanwhile, rhe Dublin government has declared the start of a new relationship with Ian Paisley’s hardline unionist DUP following the party’s first political talks in the 26 Counties.
Mr Paisley and his deputy Peter Robinson had over two hours of talks on Wednesday at Government Buildings in Dublin with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and his newly-appointed foreign affairs minister, Dermot Ahern.
Several years ago, the likelihood of such a convivial meeting was inconceivable. ‘Screaming Ian’ Paisley has always loudly denounced any attempt by Dublin to engage in the North’s affairs, but he admitted yesterday that the talks had taken place without rancour. “We didn’t fall out,” he said.
The Taoiseach had met Mr Paisley in his capacity as Free Presbyterian Moderator in Dublin several years ago, but yesterday was the first meeting in the Irish capital on political business as DUP leader.
“We are working towards a settlement for all the people of Northern Ireland and in so doing we wish to build a relationship with our neighbours that is practically based rather than politically motivated,” Mr Paisley added.
“No-one has anything to fear from such an accountable north-south relationship of equal partnerships.”
Mr Paisley also insisted that the IRA must relinquish its guns and be out of business for good.
He said the DUP had not seen any IRA offer, and had indicated to Mr Ahern that “more work” will be needed in this area.
Mr Ahern said yesterday: “There are difficult issues to do with the operation of the Good Friday Agreement which must be resolved in a reasonable way.
“And we have to ensure a permanent end to IRA paramilitarism and the decommissioning of its weapons.”
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin vice-president Pat Doherty has again called for the DUP to talk directly to his party.
“While we obviously welcome the visit of the DUP to Dublin and the engagement with the Irish government, it is important that they follow this change of direction up with direct dialogue with Sinn Féin,” Mr Doherty said.
“Direct and meaningful dialogue is the best way to ensure progress and forward movement in the time ahead.”
Also, Mr Doherty pointed out that the Irish government was, with the British government, co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement and it was crucial that they made clear that none of the fundamental principles which underpin the agreement were up for negotiation.