SDLP leader Mark Durkan has strongly criticised both the UK Northern Secretary Peter Hain and DUP leader Ian Paisley after politics at Stormont today descended into farce today.
Durkan lambasted the minister after the inaugural meeting of Stormont’s Preparation for Government Committee meeting broke up without any agreement on who should chair it.
Mr Durkan emerged from today’s meeting, accusing the DUP of refusing to engage with other parties and acting as if they had a veto.
“At times during the meeting the DUP talked about their understandings from the Secretary of State and with the Secretary of State,” the Foyle MP said.
“But the Secretary of State came to this process with the silly belief that we could all have confidence in the DUP.
“While he has been writing positive references for the DUP saying they were willing and ready to engage, they are content that they can stop this committee even though some of their members originally canvassed the idea.
“It is frustrating that they couldn’t even let the committee do its primary work. The Secretary of State needs to now finally realise that he came to this mistakenly believing the DUP were serious, even though we warned against this long ago.”
Unionists and nationalists clashed today on the committee about who its chair should be.
The Rev Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists proposed Assembly Speaker Eileen Bell, but she is believed to have turned their suggestion down.
Sinn Féin chief negotiator Martin McGuinness suggested the chairmanship should either be jointly chaired by his party and the DUP or rotated between the parties.
Afterwards an exasperated David Ford, the leader of the cross community Alliance Party who at one stage was mooted as the committee chairman, said the Irish and British governments needed to reassess their approach to efforts to revive power sharing.
“We in Alliance had reservations about the value of the committee but we attended to do a job for the people we represent,” the South Antrim MLA said.
“But we will not take on other people’s jobs for them. There are many issues to be covered, there are genuine difficulties to recognise and all parties have a duty to take their share of responsibility.
“The government strategy of trying to arrange a quick fix between the DUP and Sinn Féin has been blown out of the water.
“If they cannot even agree on how to chair a meeting, what hope is there that they will agree to form an executive within the next six months?”
With Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British prime minister Tony Blair due to travel to Belfast at the end of the month to spearhead two days of talks with the parties, Mr Hain set up the Preparation for Government Committee to identify issues which will need to be addressed if power sharing is to return.
Mr Durkan reacted angrily to reports that the DUP told the Government it wants a two-week extension of the November 24 deadline set by London and Dublin for achieving power sharing at Stormont because no business had been scheduled for the Assembly over the past fortnight.
The SDLP leader also criticised Mr Hain’s approach towards the Assembly.
“We come to the Assembly debates to test the Government and to test other parties,” the former Stormont deputy first minister said.
“But even when it comes to deciding the issues for debates the Secretary of State is dictated to by the DUP one week and Sinn Féin the next.
“The only people the Secretary of State should be dictated by is the general public and the electorate who want the institutions restored.
“It’s about time the Secretary of State stopped letting parties pull his strings.”
Sinn Féin chief negotiator Martin McGuinness, who led a delegation which included fellow MPs Michelle Gildernew and Conor Murphy, accused the DUP of not being serious about re-establishing the political institutions and sending a low-level delegation to the meeting.
“This is ridiculous,” the Mid Ulster MP said.
“The DUP won’t make a serious effort to engage in the Preparation for Government Committee.
“Peter Hain needs to make it clear that if the DUP are unwilling to engage then he is prepared to call time on the Assembly.
“The DUP appear content to have debates in the Hain Assembly that will have no impact on policy.
“Instead of getting on with the business of the Assembly and setting up the executive, the DUP appear happy to let British direct rule ministers remain in charge and continue with policies on rates increases, water charges, industrial de-rating and rural planning that are hugely damaging.
“While the DUP run away from responsibility they have no credibility in complaining about direct rule. Participation in these sham debates merely provides a fig leaf for DUP attempt to create a Shadow Assembly.”