North's parties unite against Sinn Féin

Sinn Féin’s coalition partners united against the party tonight after it blocked a crunch meeting of the North's Cabinet.

Sinn Féin’s coalition partners united against the party tonight after it blocked a crunch meeting of the North's Cabinet.

Ministers from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the SDLP held discussions on moving forward on bread and butter issues without republicans.

Sinn Féin refused to allow a full Executive meeting in the absence of DUP movement on the devolution of policing and justice powers to Stormont and attacked the SDLP for joining unionists against Sinn Féin.

Earlier this week, UK prime minister Gordon Brown addressed the Assembly and called for a date to be set for devolution of the powers, but his speech failed to end the deadlock between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

Tonight, DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson said Sinn Féin’s refusal to hold a Cabinet meeting meant Government papers could not be signed off, threatening cross-border meetings planned with the Irish Government.

Flanked by Ulster Unionist leader and Employment Minister Reg Empey and SDLP Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie, he said they would seek to carry out ministerial work without Sinn Féin.

“Each of us, if there is not an Executive meeting taking place, I think will look to urgent procedures because we are not in the business of making people outside suffer,” said Mr Robinson.

“Others will have to answer for themselves.

“The Executive should be meeting, that is what we are elected to do, that is what we are legally required to do.”

The DUP and Sinn Féin share the office of First and Deputy First Minister and the joint nature of its powers has allowed republicans to effectively block Cabinet meetings since June.

Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said he had made proposals to ease the economic pressure on households, as well as procedures to implement them without an Executive meeting.

He said his party wanted the North's Government to operate on the basis of equality between unionists and nationalists.

“We do have a situation where the Democratic Unionist Party are in default of the St Andrews Agreement,” he said.

“If Sinn Fein had been in default, for example by not giving our full support to policing institutions in the North, they would have all been lining up to beat us over the head.”

He added: “There is a real responsibility to ensure that the tail that is wagging the DUP dog is put in its place.

“There is a responsibility to show leadership. We are absolutely convinced that there are people in the DUP, and indeed others, who are hostile to these institutions which Sinn Fein participate in.”

The St Andrews Agreement of 2006 earmarked May this year as a target date for the devolution of policing and justice responsibility, but while progress has been made on the format of an eventual Justice Ministry, the DUP insists it does not believe the conditions are yet right for the move.

The DUP threatened serious consequences if the Executive meeting planned for today did not go ahead.

But as the Cabinet table sat empty in Stormont Castle, Mr Robinson held talks with DUP, UUP and SDLP in his private office elsewhere in the building.

Mr McGuinness, meanwhile, continued his own work in his office directly upstairs.

The inter-party talks which took place without Sinn Féin do not have Cabinet status.

But the SDLP’s Ms Ritchie said: “But this is a short-term issue because people are urgently wanting to know what we can do for them to keep them warm this winter and that is my urgent concern.

“So I am happy to enter into discussions with the Minister for Finance and the Minister for the Economy and for Health to see what we can do collectively.”

Mr McGuinness hit out at the SDLP, highlighting a recent speech by SDLP leader Mark Durkan in which he proposed a future reform of Stormont’s voting structures.

“I think what people will see on their TV screens tonight is a minority nationalist party sandwiched between two unionist parties,” said Mr McGuinness.

“And they will remind themselves of the speech that Mark Durkan made in Oxford which was clearly anti-powersharing, which was clearly advocating a return to unionist majority rule.”

Empey said members of the public demanded progress on economic issues.

“People are worrying about their mortgages, they are worrying about negative equity,” he said.

“I have to say that, looking at the news over the past two or three days, it is actually quite frightening for the individual.

“We’re in a position of privilege, we’re in the position of being given the responsibility to try and provide good government for this region.

“Given all the goodwill that was bestowed upon us last year, that is being squandered.”

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