06/02/2006

Devolution talks start in Hillsborough

Secretary of State, Peter Hain and Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern are today hosting talks at Hillsborough Castle, involving members of the main political parties in Northern Ireland.

Expectations on the likelihood of any progress being made on restoring devolution in Northern Ireland were dented following the release of last week's Independent Monitoring Commission report.

The Democratic Unionist Party were the first to speak with Mr Hain, however representatives refused to meet with Mr Ahern, saying that they would not discuss the internal affairs of Northern Ireland with a Dublin Minister.

Emerging from the meeting, the Rev Ian Paisley said there was a "great gulf" and "no agreement" at the meeting. He said the southern Government were "backing the IRA to get them back in government" but he said the IRA must disband.

Today's talks are set to be the beginning of a concerted bid by the British and Irish governments to bridge the gap between the main parties.

Mr Hain today said that all parties need to be involved in these discussions and that there is no reason for any political party not to be involved in negotiations about the future of Northern Ireland.

Last week's IMC report revealed that the IRA is still believed to be involved in intelligence-gathering and criminal activity, and is thought to be in possession of some weaponry.

This led to the Rev Ian Paisley, at the annual DUP party conference on Saturday, to refer to the IRA's decommissioning claims as "a blatant lie".

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness hit back, saying that Sinn Fein have taken risks for peace and made difficult decisions to ensure that the peace process remains in motion.

He said: "There are those whose objective is to wreck the peace, the peace breakers. They are to be found in the unionist political parties who hanker after the old days of unionist domination. They are in the Special Branch and British security system.

They are the people who provide the unsubstantiated allegations, including

DUP supporters in the Special Branch, that makes up the nonsense, which is presented as an IMC report."

Mr McGuinness added that the two governments needed to deal with the absurdity of this situation, and that it was clear that their combined goal was to see the political institutions restored to full working order.

He said that the next few months will be the "most challenging and crucial" since the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

He concluded by saying that these talks will provide the opportunity to resolve these issues and hard choices would soon have to be made by the DUP.

Liberal Democrat Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Lembit Opik, today commented on the start of the fresh talks. He said: "I hope that the government will have learnt the lesson of the last few years and will guarantee that this round of talks is truly inclusive.

"Northern Ireland cannot afford to be presented with another series of side-deals that will ultimately fail."

He added that all parties must return to round table talks and only when all parties agree to a way forward and sign up to the resulting package, will a lasting settlement be secured.

(EF/SP)

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