A question mark still hangs over the Democratic Unionists’ commitment to power sharing in Northern Ireland, it was claimed today.
As British and Irish officials continued to focus on how they could restore devolved government at Stormont, Sinn Féin chairman Mitchel McLaughlin said it was essential the deadlock in Northern Ireland’s political process should be broken.
The Foyle MLA said in Dublin: “The two governments are not simply facilitators or commentators on this process.
“They both have a crucial role to play particularly in honouring their outstanding commitments, if we are to achieve agreement on a comprehensive package.
“Four weeks ago there was progress made at Leeds Castle. However it is crucial that this work is brought to a speedy conclusion.
“Republicans want to see a deal done. We want to see the political institutions back up and running and the outstanding elements of the Good Friday Agreement implemented.
“However the safeguards and protections in the Good Friday Agreement cannot be diluted. There has to be democratic accountability in policing.
“Both governments have declared their belief that the DUP is for power sharing.
“There is no evidence thus far to support this and it flies in the face of the DUP attitude in local councils where they have majority control.”
Since last month’s Leeds Castle talks in Kent, British and Irish officials have tried to come up with a formula to which all the parties can agree to kickstart the Assembly.
During the Leeds Castle talks, Northern Ireland’s political leaders came tantalisingly close to securing a deal which would have meant the IRA giving up all its weapons and making a statement on its future in return for a restoration of the institutions.
However, they could not agree a future model for power sharing.
The Reverend Ian Paisley’s DUP will not go into government with Sinn Féin if the IRA remains active.
But they have also demanded significant changes to the Good Friday Agreement to ensure devolved ministers are more accountable to their cabinet colleagues and to the Assembly.
The nationalist SDLP and Sinn Féin, however, have accused the party of trying to create a veto on the work of other parties’ ministers in a future executive and also of trying to undermine cross border co-operation under the Good Friday Agreement.
With the parties stalled on future power sharing, Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy on Monday appeared to set a two week deadline for progress.
He told a meeting of the British Irish Inter Parliamentary Body in Chepstow, Wales that the finishing line in the peace process was in sight.
“Anyone who understands Northern Ireland will know that trust will not be established overnight. It will grow slowly, sometimes painfully.
“But I believe that within the next two weeks both sides have the opportunity to take dramatic, decisive and unequivocal steps forward which themselves will form the basis of a new relationship.”
Mr Murphy is due to review the state of the talks in Dublin tomorrow at a meeting with Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern.
David Ford, leader of the cross community Alliance Party, which has backed calls for reforms to the power sharing system, has again attacked the SDLP for refusing to countenance change.
The South Antrim Assembly member said: “The SDLP is not being realistic about the choices facing Northern Ireland today.
“The choice is not between defending the Agreement precisely as it stands and giving into the DUP demands.
“Instead, the choice is whether we make sensible reforms to the Agreement or let it die.
“It is an old trick in Northern Ireland politics to scaremonger, to build up a false threat that must be resisted.
“But the reality is that while the DUP has rightly pointed out many deficiencies with the Agreement, their original proposals for reform are not runners.
“It might have been easier if the last election had not thrown up the balance of power that it did but we all have to deal with the situation that exists today.
“If Northern Ireland people wish to take control of their own future, rather than letting outsiders continue to impose decisions upon us, that means creating the context for the DUP to buy into the Agreement and work its institutions.”
Mr Ford said he was disappointed by the lack of vision shown by other parties.
The Alliance leader now believed political progress would hinge on any proposals brought forward by the two governments.
He said both governments were clear that the fundamental principles of the Agreement were sacrosanct but that reforms were needed.
“It is unclear as to why the SDLP is so opposed to putting in place measures to enhance collective responsibility and the accountability of ministers,” he said.
“Yes, the DUP have a poor record in local government. On previous form, people are right to be wary of what they may do in government.
“Surely, the logic is to try to put in place as many safeguards as possible.
“Are parties going to sit on their hands, or are they going to rise to the challenge? I rather fear that the SDLP have chosen the former.”