All participants engaged in talks to save the North’s power-sharing political institutions must adopt a spirit of generosity, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness said today.
The Deputy First Minister said there was a “huge responsibility” resting on the five parties in the coalition Executive in Belfast and the British and Irish governments to push themselves to find a resolution.
The administration is teetering on the verge of collapse due to a crisis sparked by a murder linked to the IRA.
However, its future viability had already been in doubt as a consequence of long-standing budgetary disputes, with the row over the non-implementation of the UK government’s welfare reforms the most vexed.
The fallout from the shooting of Kevin McGuigan and the other problems besetting power-sharing are on the agenda in the cross-party negotiations at Stormont House which began today.
Before entering the discussions, Mr McGuinness said: “We are going into these discussions with a view to finding a resolution to the outstanding difficulties and to ensure there is a workable budget for the Executive.
“There is a huge responsibility on all parties, including ourselves, and also the two governments to be creative and deploy a spirit of generosity in the course of these discussions.”
Ahead of the talks, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers warned politicians not to waste the opportunity to build a better future.
The devolved Assembly has been thrown into disarray following the murder of Mr McGuigan last month.
The 53-year-old was shot dead in a suspected revenge attack for the murder of his one-time associate and IRA commander Gerard “Jock” Davison, 47, three months earlier.
A police assessment that individual members of the PIRA were involved alongside dissident republicans and criminal elements has rocked the political establishment and prompted unionists to remove all but one ministers from the Executive.
DUP leader Peter Robinson said his party had six key proposals, including the establishment of a "permanent'' structure to provide a comprehensive examination and assessment of paramilitary activity.
“One of our six demands, and it will be no surprise, will be for a permanent structure to carry out that kind of review and, like the IMC (International Monitoring Commission), it should have sanctions applied to anybody who breaches it,” he said.
Mr Robinson, who was discharged from hospital less than 24 hours ago after suffering an adverse reaction to medication prescribed following his heart attack in May, said he was feeling fine.
“As someone who left it 66 years to get into hospital in the first place, I am trying to make up for it a bit,” he said.
“It was simply a bad reaction to some of the medication. It has been corrected and I am feeling much better already.”
The Democratic Unionists and Ulster Unionists had said the issue of paramilitary activity was crucial to their participation in any talks process.
On Friday, the British government announced an independent assessment of paramilitary criminality and pledged increased funding to tackle cross border organised crime such as fuel laundering and smuggling.
No major breakthrough is expected in the talks process until the paramilitary assessment is published, which is expected in mid-October.
Mr McGuinness expressed concern that the report had the potential to “derail” the negotiations.
Many of the disputes in the Executive seemed to have been resolved last December when all the parties and the two governments signed off on a deal titled the Stormont House Agreement.
However, that accord is in danger of unravelling over the welfare reform issue.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said his party would be “positive and imaginative” in the talks.
“We enter the talks with some concerns, not least about whether there will be a two-party carve-up (DUP and Sinn Féin) in a parallel process, but the glass is half full and we see opportunities,” he said.
“We have an opportunity to see if there is a collective political will to rid society once and for all of organised crime linked to paramilitary organisations. There is also the big challenge of seeing whether we can actually get over the hurdle of implementing the Stormont House Agreement.”