Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and DUP leader Ian Paisley will hold their first ever face-to-face talks today as parties are faced with a deadline for the restoration of the Six-County political institutions, or, more likely, an agreement to suspend the process for a number of weeks at the request of the DUP.
Parties sources the two will meet in a committee room at Stormont Parliament Buildings for their first direct negotiation beginning mid-morning Irish time. The DUP leader has always refused to hold direct talks with republicans.
The high-wire negotiations are necessary because of the DUP’s refusal to meet today’s deadline for the appointment of an Executive of Ministers following from the Assembly election earlier this month.
Defending their call for a further delay, DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said yesterday that “there were outstanding issues to be resolved”.
“We need to have a further testing to ensure Sinn Féin’s commitment to the rule of law and to negotiate a [larger] financial package,” he said.
Sinn Féin has said all parties, including the two governments, must abide by the timetable set out in the St Andrews Agreement. The party has fulfilled all its commitments in the Agreement, including a highly controversial change of policy to support the British PSNI police.
However, Mr Adams on Saturday left open the possibility that the DUP could today win the support of the other parties for another delay, despite scepticism that furthrer delsay could be undermine the process.
Events today remain unpredictable and a difficult negotiation lies ahead for both Adams and Paisley, as well as the other main parties, Mark Durkan’s SDLP and Reg Empey’s UUP.
A full meeting of the Belfast Assembly for nominating ministers is due to take place at noon, but British officials have warned this should be averted in order to avoid a ‘crash’.
If no deal is reached by midnight tonight, the newly-elected Assembly will certainly ‘crash’. At this point the two governments -- if previous statements are to be believed -- will finally move to implement all-Ireland partnership arrangements for the administration of the North.
British Direct Ruler Peter Hain repeated this morning that if there was no agreement by the end of today then the Assembly would be dissolved. “That is that,” he said.
Agreement on a new date for power-sharing would prompt the British government to push through emergency legislation at the London parliament. Plans to introduce controversial water charges in the North would also likely be put on hold, a common goal of all the parties.
Last night Mr Adams said it was vital that the current intense talks delivered the political institutions which people voted for in the election on March 7.
“Otherwise, additional water charges and other punitive and unfair measures will be introduced by unaccountable British Direct Rule ministers,” the West Belfast MP warned.
“If the DUP remains unwilling or unable to reach an agreement with Sinn Féin and the other parties then the (British and Irish) Governments have to move ahead with their all-Ireland partnership arrangements.”