Secret talks have been taking place between the DUP, Ulster Unionist Party and the British Conservatives which could bolster unionist domination in the north of Ireland for generations to come, it has emerged.
Talks between the parties in England at the weekend were described by unionists as ‘private’, but the revelations of a possible ‘pan-unionist front’ has jeopardised the talks process in Belfast.
The primary purpose of the talks at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire is to ensure that Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness is prevented from holding the post of First Minister following the next assembly election.
The position normally goes to the largest party in the Belfast Assembly. As substantial DUP support has leaked to the extreme unionist TUV in recent years, Sinn Fein is seen to be in a position to potentially secure the post in the event of an Assembly election. However, under Assembly rules, a formal pre-election link between the UUP and the DUP could allow the two parties to be considered as one for the purposes of retaining the top post and winning key Ministerial posts.
Moreover, a deal to agree single unionist candidates for the Westminster election and to bolster the majority of the Conservative Party in the event of a hung Westminster parliament is also in the works, it has been reported.
Any pact ahead of the Westminster elections expected by May could damage the prospects of SDLP deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell holding his South Belfast House of Commons seat and possibly threaten Michelle Gildernew’s Sinn Fein seat in Fermanagh-South Tyrone.
DUP leader Peter Robinson, deputy leader Nigel Dodds and Finance Minister Sammy Wilson took part in the discussions with the Conservative shadow Direct Ruler Owen Paterson and UUP deputy leader Danny Kennedy and Assembly member Tom Elliott.
A realignment involving the DUP, the UUP and the Conservatives could secure unionist control of the Belfast Assembly and relegate any need to reach a deal in talks with Sinn Fein. Danny Kennedy of the UUP confirmed the meeting took place and indicated strategies were being considered that would be to the advantage of unionism in general.
“We do not propose, however, to go into any kind of detail in relation to that [the talks] except to say we considered both the short-term, medium-term and long-term interests of all of the people of Northern Ireland,” he said. He also indicated that “further or enhanced” talks would take place.
A deal at the Hatfield House talks would mean the DUP would not fear allowing the negotiations in Belfast to stagnate or fail. Any subsequent collapse of the Assembly could also allow Peter Robinson to reassert his leadership despite the recent scandal over his wife’s financial dealings with two developers and a teenage paramour.
A deal could also have benefits for the Tories were there to be a hung parliament after the Westminster elections. Up to 12 unionist MPs voting Conservative could be crucial in such circumstances.
Dr McDonnell who took what had been the safe unionist seat of South Belfast in the 2005 British general election yesterday accused Tory leader David Cameron of “engaging in naked sectarianism and exploiting the policing and justice crisis to play the Orange card”. “Everyone can see this for what it is, a cynical attempt by the Tories to grab a few Orange votes ahead of the forthcoming Westminster election.”
Sinn Fein has made no comment on the Hatfield House talks. However, it insisted this [Thursday] evening that parallel talks on transferring policing and justice powers from London to Belfast must come to a head by the weekend. It is understood that the negotiations in Belfast have been significantly strained by the revelations on the secret pan-unionist talks in England.
There is now a clear sense that the talks are reaching a make-or-break point with the Ulster Unionist Party, the nationalist SDLP and unionist Alliance Party for the first time receiving some detailed briefings about the process discussions.
There is understood to be continuing disagreement over the parades issue, and the date for the transfer of powers. Meanwhile, the SDLP has thrown a spanner into the mix when in declared that it will pull out of the Stormont Executive if the Alliance Party is handed the proposed new justice Ministry.
Sinn Fein vice president Mary Lou McDonald denied her party was setting a new deadline following its previous Christmas deadline.
However, after a briefing from Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, she indicated that, after three years of stalemate, the DUP had still not gone far enough in the negotiations.
“I have to say that, at this time, there’s not yet an indication from the DUP that they are ready to step up to the plate and meet their commitments,” she said.
She confirmed the party’s Ard Chomhairle [leadership board] will meet on Saturday.
Ms McDonald added: “The St Andrews Agreement is now three years old, the process that we are involved in is really one of completion and not renegotiation.
“We want this to work, there’s now an obligation on all of us and in particular the DUP to step up to the plate, meet their commitments and to make this work.
“We will not operate on the basis of any preconditions. All of the matters outstanding have been agreed some three years back at St Andrews and now it is the job of politics here in the north of Ireland to do its job, to meet its commitment and the DUP can’t hold up progress.”