‘Critical’ talks taking place today
‘Critical’ talks taking place today

DUP leader Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness are holding a crucial meeting in Belfast today that could determine whether the Northern Executive and Assembly can be saved from collapse.

26-County Taoiseach Brian Cowen and British prime minister Gordon Brown are also meeting at Downing Street this afternoon.

After several years of deadlock, Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness finally appear to be reaching a showdown, with the Sinn Fein still seeking the transfer of policing and justice powers to the Stormont administration and the DUP leader demanding various preconditions, including the abolition of the Parades Commission.

There appeared to be a growing awareness in Dublin and London that Sinn Fein is now seeking to bring a conclusion to the byzantine discussions over policing and justice which began in 2006. The party said on Saturday it was seeking a final ‘defining’ meeting with the DUP.

DUP leaders have privately boasted how they are “four, five or six nil up on the Shinners” denying them anything on the Irish language, the transformation of Long Kesh prison, killing the North-South dimension of the Good Friday agreements, and how, after pressurising Sinn Fein to finally support policing, seeking a final humiliation for devolving policing and justice -- a triumphalist sectarian march down the Garvaghy Road in Portadown.

Officials in Dublin this week appeared to accept that Sinn Fein was finally coming to the realisation that a proper working relationship with the DUP in the Executive wasn’t possible.

Were Mr McGuinness to resign as Deputy First Minister, Assembly elections would have to be called after seven days.

Sinn Fein north Belfast Assembly member Gerry Kelly said that the DUP wanted to give the Protestant Orange Order a veto.

“The DUP have made a precondition of sorting out these contentious parades, the whole parades issue,” he said.

“What they’re saying is that the Orange Order will make the decision on that and they’re linking that to giving a date on policing and justice.”

It emerged last week that unionists, including the DUP, Ulster Unionists and British Conservative Party, have been working closely on a strategy to combat nationalists in elections to both the London parliament and Belfast Assembly.

There were suggestions that DUP leader Peter Robinson appeared satisfied that the strategy had outwitted Sinn Fein and guaranteed continued unionist domination in Belfast for the foreseeable future.

Speaking on Irish radio on Sunday, Mr Cowen said he was “very concerned” at the failure of Sinn Fein and the DUP to reach agreement.

“We’re in a serious situation. Obviously, the ideal situation is for Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister and First Minister Peter Robinson to come to agreement on these outstanding issues that have to be resolved and work with the other parties that are part of the process,” he said.

A British government spokesman said today’s talks were “part of ongoing discussions on Northern Ireland”.

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