Attempts to hold “phased multi-party talks” involving the North’s five main political parties collapsed amid acrimony on Monday afternoon.
The row followed a series of meetings between British Direct Ruler Peter Hain, 26 County Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern and the main parties at Stormont outside Belfast.
It was thought unionists might take part in a round-table talks process, but that option was ruled out as the DUP and Ulster Unionists refused to sit down with Sinn Féin.
In order to accommodate the DUP, the DUP, SDLP, UUP and Alliance were then to sit at one session of talks today, without Sinn Féin.
This would have been followed by a second round in which Sinn Féin replaced the DUP, to allow the DUP avoid facing republicans.
However, Sinn Féin rejected the scheme, with party President Gerry Adams accused the government of pandering to the DUP.
At a news conference on Monday, he said the British government was “naive”.
Mr Adams said his party found the plan to have separate meetings totally unacceptable. It proved that Ian Paisley, not the governments, was in charge of the talks, he said.
The Ulster Unionist Party also got involved in the talks farce when it insisted on sending only a notetaker.
Speaking afterwards, Mr Hain said people needed to realise that both governments were “for real” in securing political progress.
“We tried a particular formula and that didn’t work,” he said. “We decided there was no point in proceeding since they were not all-party discussions as we had intended.”
RETURN OF FORUM?
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is considering a plan to restore the Belfast Assembly with little or no powers, according to reports.
Proposals by the nationalist SDLP and Ulster Unionists at their meetings in London last week called for the Assembly to be recalled as a public forum in order to fill the current political vacuum in the North.
The plan would allow a so-called “decontamination period” for Sinn Féin until it is deemed acceptable by unionists to share power with the North’s largest political party.
The Assembly would operate in a manner reminiscent of the ‘Northern Ireland Forum’ of 1996, which ran alongisde negotiations that eventually led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
It is being speculated that the talks would be given a six-month or one-year deadline, with Sinn Féin and the DUP potentially facing responsibility for collapsing the political institutions should an agreement fail to emerge.
As the second round of negotiations of the year took place in Belfast today, British Direct Ruler Peter Hain said parties had to reach a preliminary agreement by Wednesday, March 8, if the British government is to bring in legislative changes.
Mr Hain introduced a Bill in the London parliament last Thursday which could be used to implement the devolution of administrative powers from London to Belfast. The Bill included legislation to devolve policing and justice powers, a key requirement for Sinn Féin to participate in power-sharing.
“I want to see agreement reached on March 8,” said Mr Hain.
But the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis (annual conference) heard at the weekend the complete abolition of the Assembly may be the only way of dealing with Ian Paisley’s efforts at preventing progress.
Sinn Féin chief negotiator Martin McGuinness has said his party is opposed to any proposals which fall short of power sharing as envisaged by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
In his report on negotiations to the Ard Fheis in Dublin, the Mid-Ulster MP described the return of an Assembly without an Executive as “a stepping stone approach to the return of unionist majority rule”.
“We have told both governments that a continuation indefinitely of what exists at present is untenable and that if it becomes clear in the next few months that full restoration cannot be achieved in the short term the Assembly should be scrapped,” he said.
“We have emphasised that our priority for movement forward is on the basis of the Agreement and this is our plan A. But we have also reminded them of what needs to be done if unionist leaders continue their rejectionism.
“Rights and entitlements cannot be subject to a veto and there are commitments the governments can deliver on without the institutions, without agreement from unionist political leaders.
“Without and until we have power sharing, the governments need to press ahead with joint government decision-making, alongside all other elements of the Good Friday Agreement.”
Mr McGuinness praised the “substantive and courageous initiative” of the Provisional IRA in July, when it unilaterally disarmed and declared an end to its armed struggle.
“We are ready to engage with unionism, but Ian Paisley and the Democratic Unionist Party must come to terms with the new reality. Ian Paisley now has a huge decision to make.
“We are engaged in more discussions and negotiations that will probably last until April,” Mr McGuinness told the first night of the Ard Fheis.
“At that time we will be aware if the DUP is ready to come to terms with the reality, that for them and for the rest of us the Good Friday Agreement is the only way forward.
“I hope Ian Paisley makes the right decision. But if he makes the wrong decision it puts a mighty responsibility on the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister, to make it absolutely clear to the unionists that they are not going to be allowed prevent progress.
“If that means tackling the issue of Assembly salaries so be it. If that means the abolition of the Assembly then so be it.
“But then we step on to a wholly new agenda and that agenda is about how the two governments are to fully implement the Good Friday Agreement.”