DUP leader Ian Paisley has declared that a deal by the November 24th deadline set by the British and 26 County governments is unlikely and branded proposed peace talks in Scotland “a waste of money”.
With London and Dublin attempting to get the DUP and Sinn Féin into a power-sharing administration for the Six Counties, Mr Paisley gave a gloomy assessment of the chances of success by the deadline.
Speaking after meeting British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London on Wednesday evening, he said: “I don’t think so. In fact, we never mentioned it. There was no deadlines mentioned, but I can’t see it.”
With Mr Blair quitting within the next 12 months, the November 24th deadline is increasingly being seen as the last chance to revive the Belfast Assembly before he goes.
The DUP is likely to attempt to stall the process for as long as possible without provoking the governments to activate their threatened ‘Plan B’ -- moves to introduce certain levels of joint authority over the Six Counties.
In regard to the ‘hot house’ talks planned for St Andrews in Scotland, he insisted: “We shouldn’t leave Northern Ireland for this meeting. We should all stay in Northern Ireland and do it there.
“I put this very forcefully to the Prime Minister. He said he would take it on board. I feel it’s a waste of money. Why spend all this money in Scotland? Let’s have it in Stormont.”
Speaking in Oxford last weekend, British Direct Ruler Peter Hain warned that failure could mean it will take until after the British general election in 2009 for the next opportunity to strike agreement between nationalists and unionists.
He pointed out that by that the date, the 400th anniversary of the Plantation of Ireland, the North could have finally progressed politically, socially and economically.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern, speaking in Derry on Thursday night, suggested the 2009 date was even being optimistic if the deadline was lost.
“My own assessment is that it could be even longer,” said Mr Ahern. “Failure to make political agreement on restoration will have stark implications. It will confine the parties to the margins of policy making - to a kind of virtual politics,” he added.
The DUP strongly prefers another three years of delay to any change in the status quo, including the still mysterious ‘Plan B’, and are likely to string out any talks for as long as possible. Reports also suggest the Paisleyites believe there is a possibility that they might hold the balance of power following the British general election, dealing a potentially fatal and permanent blow to the current process.
Ahern alluded to the ‘Plan B’, a system of “joint stewardship” which will be operated by the two governments covering economics, infrastructure and what have been described as “bread and butter issues”.
Mr Ahern said this outcome was “not a win” for nationalist parties and was “likely to be equally disagreeable to Sinn Féin and the DUP”.
Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness said: “The two governments need to make it very clear to DUP leader Ian Paisley the process will not be stalled any longer and that they intend to stand by the Good Friday agreement.”
The assembly also debated a report on the economic challenges facing the North of Ireland. The assembly plenary session was boycotted by Sinn Féin.
Martin McGuinness said he could not see “what can be gained” from the party “playing along with participating in an assembly with no powers”.
“Here we are in a situation where there is no commitment from the DUP that the institutions are going to be restored,” he added.