Stormont’s Democratic Unionist First Minister has insisted his party is serious about a new political talks process in the North despite boycotting the opening session in Belfast.
Peter Robinson said the calibre of both the DUP’s negotiating team and its proposals to resolve impasses would demonstrate how committed it was to finding agreement in the coming weeks.
The DUP earlier faced a barrage of criticism from the other parties in the powersharing Executive for not attending the first plenary session of the Government-convened talks at Stormont House.
Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness accused his partner in government of showing contempt and disrespect to the process, which is being chaired by Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers.
Mr Robinson responded to those claims, reiterating his view that the initial round-table exchanges this morning were nothing more than a sideshow put on for the cameras.
The DUP had also objected to the presence of the Irish Government, in the form of Foreign Affairs minister Charlie Flanagan, in exchanges that primarily focused on internal Northern Ireland matters.
Mr Robinson said: “We take the real business of negotiation seriously, rather than the tinsel and fancy lights of having a plenary session where nothing is going to be agreed and where it gives to the government of the Irish Republic the impression that they are co-equal partners in terms of this process, when the bulk of this process is about the internal affairs of Northern Ireland.”
The DUP did agree to attend a bilateral meeting with Ms Villiers this afternoon.
Mr Robinson said those types of one-to-one encounters could achieve real progress.
“From our point of view that (bilaterals) is where we are more likely to get a result rather than round a table with a cast of hundreds,” he said.
The DUP leader added: “By the end of this day I think nobody will be in any doubt that it is the DUP which is making the most significant contribution to the talks process.”
Earlier, Mr McGuinness launched a scathing attack on the DUP as he attended the opening plenary – a session that essentially focused on drawing up a work programme for weeks of negotiations ahead.
“I think the refusal of the DUP to attend here this morning shows their utter contempt for this process, their contempt for the two governments and their contempt and lack of respect for all of the other parties in this process,” he said.
As well as long-unresolved peace process disputes on flags, parades and the legacy of the past, the fresh round of negotiations will also attempt to reach consensus on rows over the implementation of welfare reforms in the region and other budgetary problems, and on the very structures of the devolved Assembly.
There was even a dispute on the location of today’s talks, with the DUP objecting to the original plan to hold them at the home of the Assembly in Parliament Building, arguing that it was not an appropriate venue for the Irish Government to have a presence.
The opening plenary session was instead held a few hundred metres away at the Northern Ireland Office’s base at Stormont – Stormont House.
With the number and breadth of matters on the agenda having grown from previous failed talks initiatives, there is little optimism outside of Stormont that a comprehensive agreement will be reached this time round.
Mr McGuinness said that, while progress had been achieved in Sinn Féin’s first five years of sharing power with the DUP, the last two years had been “absolutely appalling”, blaming unionist intransigence and unwillingness to honour deals.
SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell was also critical of the DUP’s no-show.
“The DUP have got to make up their minds what they are at here,” he said.
“Whether they are going to honour the responsibilities they sought when they sought election or whether they are going to play games.
“Gimmicks and stunts and staying away and abstentionism doesn’t work and isn’t going to work.”
Alliance Party David Ford said the people of Northern Ireland “deserved better”.
“Frankly, we are prepared to do the heavy lifting, even if other people are running away,” he said.
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt was in upbeat mood after attending the opening plenary.
He said he had received assurances that the Irish Government’s role would not touch on internal Stormont issues.
“Minister Flanagan, Secretary of State Villiers and indeed the Taoiseach Enda Kenny, in a phone call yesterday, have affirmed that the Irish Government has no role in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland,” he said.
One of the most pressing of those internal affairs is the failure to implement the UK Government’s welfare reforms in the region.
The lack of action – primarily due to Sinn Féin opposition to the policy – has seen the Executive landed with an £87 million penalty from the Treasury for the year, a sum that is set to increase in the future.
The penalty has intensified a Stormont spending crisis which last week forced Executive ministers to ask the Treasury for an emergency £100 million loan from the National Reserve to enable them to balance the budget.
Mr Robinson has also called for changes to governance structures, characterising the current arrangements at Stormont as not fit for purpose.
Ahead of the new talks, David Cameron urged Northern Ireland’s leaders to demonstrate “a genuine willingness to succeed”.
Welcoming the resumption of negotiations, the British Prime Minister said: “It is essential that we do all that we can to lift the blockages that are preventing the Executive from delivering the effective government that the people of Northern Ireland expect and deserve.
“Northern Ireland’s politicians need to deal with these issues so that they can focus on the key priorities of building a stronger, healthier economy and a genuinely shared society.
“But while the Government can help, ultimately it is for Northern Ireland political leaders to take these issues forward. I trust, therefore, that all parties will approach these talks constructively and with a genuine willingness to succeed.
“As Prime Minister, I am fully supportive of this process. I know that the Taoiseach is too. It is our intention that our respective ministers will report back on progress by the end of November.”
Taoiseach Enda Kenny urged all parties to seize the latest opportunity for settlements on outstanding issues.
“Discussion and dialogue has always been and remains the key to resolving differences and making progress on challenging issues,” he said.
“The people of Northern Ireland deserve a peaceful society, a prosperous economy and, above all, a bright future for their young people. This can only be achieved through political leaders being prepared to engage constructively.
“People from all traditions across this island support these goals and want to see progress.”