Crisis talks at Stormont
Crisis talks at Stormont

Sinn Féin has called for urgent talks with the Democratic Unionists to resolve the crisis that is said to be confronting the new political institutions in the north of Ireland.

The party was responding to a warning from DUP First Minister Peter Robinson that there would be “serious consequences” if meetings of the power-sharing executive failed to resume after a hiatus of four months.

The political vacuum has been filled with increasing levels of conflict between republican militants and the PSNI police, which, contrary to the St Andrew’s Agreement, has remained a British-operated police force.

The stalemate moved closer to crisis at the weekend when Sinn Féin warned of the risk to the political process if the DUP failed to agree a timetable to transfer policing powers from the Westminster parliament in London to Stormont.

The DUP has demanded proof that the Provisional IRA’s Army council has been disbanded as a precondition for honouring the agreement on policing, a move that has fuelled the latest crisis.

An intelligence report on the status of the Army Council is due to be handed to the British and Irish governments next week.

The two largest parties in the power-sharing administration are also at loggerheads over an Irish language act, the future of the Long Kesh prison and education reform.

The DUP and Sinn Féin also clashed this week after the Regional Development Minister, Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy, published a Stormont document referring to the North of Ireland instead of “Northern Ireland”, the term favoured by unionists.

Cabinet ministers have not met since early June and last weekend Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghin O Caolain warned that his party could pull out of the executive, triggering a fresh Assembly election, if the DUP continued to renege on their commitments.

“If we are forced to conclude that change will not be forthcoming from the Executive then we will have no option but to pull out our Ministers and seek to put pressure where responsibility ultimately lies, which is on the British government in London,” Mr O Caolain told a republican commemoration in Cavan on Sunday.

“There is now widespread and growing concern among republicans at the failure to transfer policing and justice powers from London to Belfast in due time,” he added.

“When Sinn Féin changed our policy on policing in the north, accepting that a new beginning was being made, it was with the prospect that policing and justice powers would be transferred by May of this year.

“It is now the end of August and we do not even have a date for transfer. This is totally unacceptable.”

Sinn Féin South Belfast MLA Alex Maskey accused the DUP of not properly engaging with his party to overcome the problems.

He added that the difficulties facing the Stormont administration were not insurmountable.

“It is well known that there are a number of outstanding issues arising from the St Andrews Agreement which need to be resolved,” he said.

“In June this year in Downing Street the DUP committed themselves to entering into a period of intensive dialogue with Sinn Féin to resolve these issues.

“This process of intensive engagement has not materialised satisfactorily. Now that Mr Robinson has returned from his holidays it is vital that he brings a focus to the DUP approach and that the process necessary to resolve outstanding issues now finally gets under way in a serious way.

“If this happens and the necessary political will is demonstrated then I am convinced that progress can be achieved and outstanding issues effectively addressed.”

Yesterday Mr Robinson claimed Sinn Féin were breaking their legal obligations by refusing to agree on meetings of the Stormont executive.

Sinn Féin has argued that, without any potential for agreement on the major issues, meetings of the power-sharing ministerial cabinet are pointless.

The next scheduled meeting is on September 18, but it is unlikely that it can proceed without progress in new talks.

“If this meeting were not to take place it is self-evident that there would be serious consequences for the good government of Northern Ireland and indeed potentially for those who refuse to fulfil their legal obligations,” said Mr Robinson.

Mr Robinson has claimed the timeline for the transfer of policing was only agreed between the Dublin and London governments and had nothing to do with his party.

He added that he would not “bow to any threats” from Sinn Féin.

Last month there were reports of a breakthrough after it was announced that both parties had agreed on the creation of the post of Minister for Justice and Policing, to be filled by a cross-community vote in the Stormont Assembly.

That announcement angered the leader of the nationalist SDLP, Mark Durkan, who accused the DUP and Sinn Féin of seeking to marginalise his party. The party, which currently has only one Minister in the Executive, has demanded that it be allocated to them according to their strength within the Assembly.

Sinn Féin assembly member Alex Maskey accused the SDLP’s Margaret Ritchie of “extreme paranoia or delusions of grandeur” in believing the SDLP’s role was at the heart of the matter.

“I can assure her that the position of the SDLP has played no part in any of our discussions on this issue,” he said.

“It is beyond me why Margaret Ritchie would think that her party’s position would be an issue for Sinn Féin at a time when the sole focus needs to be on ensuring delivery from the British government.”

Meanwhile, Republican Sinn Féin accused Sinn Féin and the DUP of mounting a “pathetic choreography” over the policing and justice issue.

“Members of Mr O Caolain’s own party are disenchanted not only by the failure of their leaders to secure the devolution of such powers to Stormont, but also by their cosy relationship with the DUP.

“Accusations of DUP ‘intransigence’ are nothing more than a crude attempt to woo the Provisional base. After all, DUP and Provo objectives in terms of the National Question are now identical.

“The gifting of powers of British policing to Stormont by Westminster would offer nothing for the Irish people, and serves only to prolong the failed Stormont experiment.

“Those allied with the Provisionals should instead seek the immediate dismantling of the Stormont Assembly and give allegiance to the All-Ireland Republic rather than the British Crown.”

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© 2008 Irish Republican News