The British government has rejected calls by the nationalist parties for the Belfast Assembly to be reconvened as political talks resumed in Belfast this week.

The talks-about-talks involved the all the North’s political parties in the North, with the Ian Paisley’s DUP still refusing to speak directly to Sinn Féin. However, the talks were overshadowed by last week’s controversy over allegations of IRA activity and an attack on Irish President Mary McAleese by DUP leader Ian Paisley at the weekend.

British Direct Ruler Peter Hain said he would not recall the Assembly and see it “shipwrecked” a short time later.

Speaking alongside Dublin’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern, he said a deadline was approaching for the parties to find an accommodation leading to devolution.

Neither Mr Hain nor Mr Ahern wished to impose “artificial” deadlines. But both insisted there was a timetable working backwards from scheduled elections to the Assembly in May 2007.

A letter signed by both ministers was given to all the parties stating that a clear sense of direction should be agreed by April so both governments could take “the necessary steps”.

The letter proposed that the next meeting of the talks be held on February 20th, the day after Sinn Féin’s annual conference in Dublin.

Mr Hain said “the clock is ticking. We can’t keep off reconvening the Assembly forever. It’s costing millions of pounds to stay idle. People won’t stand for that.”


Hopes were not high for the talks after a controversy over allegations of continuing IRA activity in an official report last week. At the weekend, Dublin officials were also angered over perceived damage by Ian Paisley to their efforts to improve relationships with England at the level of heads of state.

During a triumphalist and hardline speech to the annual conference, Paisley told delegates on Saturday: “I don’t like the president of the Irish Republic... because she is dishonest.”

He also claimed Mrs McAleese, who is from Belfast, was “pretending” to love the North of Ireland. Other, more cryptic remarks were made about her attitude to policing and security arrangements.

The 26-County Prime Minister, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern described the comments as “deeply regrettable”, while his Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern claimed to have held a “robust” exchange on the matter with Mr Paisley at the talks.


Nevertheless, Mr Ahern and Mr Hain were both upbeat. Mr Ahern spoke at Hillsborough about a new agreement which would fit into “the template” of the 1998 Good Friday agreement. In this vein, Mr Hain indicated that legislation would be tabled which would enable the long-postponed devolution of policing and justice powers from London to any restored Executive in Belfast.

There was also a suggestion that legislation could be tabled to enable aspects of the so-called “Comprehensive Agreement”. This was negotiated by the governments, the DUP and Sinn Féin in December 2004 and was designed to facilitate the restoration of the Belfast Assembly. However, the agreement quickly collapsed over Paisley’s call for the humiliation of the IRA with photographs of their disarmament.

Mr Hain said the main principles of the 1998 accord remain in place, including power sharing and North-South co-operation.

“Now the detail - we have always committed to reviewing the detail in the light of experience,” he said. “That is what we propose doing in the discussions starting next week. All the parties have agreed to that.”

But at this stage, there appears to be little else on which the parties will agree.

DUP leader Ian Paisley again repeated that the IRA must be disbanded and that Sinn Féin had no entitlement to be involved in talks. He said the main focus of his talks with Mr Ahern was urging Dublin to pressurise the IRA into disappearing.

“I want to see them disbanded. You can’t sit at the table as IRA/Sinn Féin. They must be disbanded. That is what the ministers of the South of Ireland ; even one of their ex-PMs said that they should be an old boys’ association,” he said.

“I don’t think Sinn Féin should be at talks to set up a new government of Northern Ireland when they are still at their criminal activities,” added Dr Paisley, who stressed that while he spoke to Mr Ahern he only talked about North-South matters.

SDLP leader Mark Durkan, after his party’s talks with Mr Ahern and Mr Hain, called on the British government to reconvene the Assembly to test whether it was possible to elect a power-sharing Executive. “The governments need to make it clear that we are on a countdown to the restoration of the institutions.”

Mr Durkan said such a move would make it clear to the DUP that it could not exert a veto over political progress. He also warned that the British government in new legislation planned for April must not do anything that would undermine the consensus nature of the Godo Friday Agreement.

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said he pressed the two governments for a timetable for restoration. “The governments say these talks are not for the optics. Well, they need to prove that,” he said. “Action is what is needed to get the political institutions back in place.”

Referring to the weekend DUP conference and remarks by Ian Paisley about Sinn Féin involvement in any future deal, Mr Adams asked: “Are the governments in charge or is Ian Paisley in charge? Is Ian Paisley going to be a part of this new dispensation or is he not? Only decisive acts by the governments will find the answer to that question.”

He accused the DUP leader of “grandstanding” and of doing “the things he has done for 40 years”. Sinn Féin would scrutinise any legislative proposals, Mr Adams said, mindful of the fact that the party “had been stung” by previous British bills dealing with policing and the so-called “on-the-runs”.

“There again, whatever comes out of this, it has to be the Good Friday agreement. Nothing less. Nothing more.”

Sinn Féin would always be part of “any constructive effort to move the process forward”, he said, and would always turn up for talks at Hillsborough or anywhere else. “But it has to be tenable. The status quo at the moment is absolutely not tenable. There is a degree of farce about an institution, the Assembly, which has never met.” He said the governments should act and move beyond rhetoric.

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