Crucial meeting of Stormont Executive cancelled

Thu, Sep 18, 2008, 01:00

A planned meeting of the Northern Ireland Executive was cancelled this afternoon when Sinn Fein refused to take part because of alleged slippage in plans to devolve security powers to a local minister.

The DUP leader Peter Robinson had threatened serious consequences if the meeting planned for today, the first cabinet meeting to be held in three months, did not go ahead.

But Sinn Fein defied the DUP and blocked the planned meeting, leaving the ministers from the DUP, Ulster Unionist Party and Nationalist SDLP to hold their own separate round-table talks.

Mr Robinson held discussions with the Unionist and Nationalist ministers in his Stormont office, while Sinn Fein’s deputy first minister Martin McGuiness continued his own work in his office upstairs.

The work of the Northern Ireland government has been disrupted by a long-running dispute between the DUP and Sinn Fein over a series of issues including the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Assembly, education reform and the promotion of the Irish language,

Both parties had been involved in talks aimed at resolving their differences and securing agreement for a full cabinet meeting.

The inter-party talks that took place without Sinn Fein cannot have cabinet status, but were described as an attempt to raise important bread and butter issues.

On his way into the talks at Stormont Castle the DUP Environment Minister Sammy Wilson said: “We are here to do business.

“There are important issues that need to be resolved for ordinary members of the public and this is the place to do it.”

Mr McGuinness wrote to Mr Robinson last night arguing that if a meeting was not possible today a £200 fuel poverty allowance should be executed by a special mechanism that would not require an Executive meeting. Mr Robinson said the allowance should be considered at today’s scheduled meeting.

Earlier, Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin has urged political parties in the North to ensure a resolution to avoid a possible crisis in the power-sharing executive.

Mr Martin met Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson and SDLP leader Mark Durkan earlier today.

Mr Martin said Dublin stood ready to provide whatever help it could.

“We have come a long way, we should never lose sight of the fact that we have made very significant progress in terms of the peace process itself.

“Let’s never lose sight of the progress that’s been made, let’s draw some inspiration from that in terms of dealing with the challenges that are before the parties.”

“The parties have to work together to overcome the challenges. We would urge the parties to continue to engage in dialogue, to ensure a resolution of the outstanding issues,” he added.

“We have had challenges before in the peace process, we have had situations where difficulties have emerged, and the capacity of politicians to overcome those challenges exists.

“The prize is of significance importance for the people of Northern Ireland.”

Northern Secretary Shaun Woodward said Northern Ireland’s politicians are likely to find a solution to the deadlock over policing and justice.

He expressed optimism at the prospect for a solution but warned that the content of ongoing discussions was more important than the timing of the next ministerial Executive meeting.

Mr Woodward met Mr Martin at his residence at Hillsborough Castle today. Mr Woodward said: “I am rather optimistic actually about how the politics is working here.

“There is very clear evidence that on a number of issues, a number of policies, the political leaders, the First and Deputy First Ministers (Peter Robinson and Martin McGuiness) are finding their way through very practical issues with practical solutions.

“Of course it is important that the Assembly meets, it is important that the Executive meets, but the ... timing I believe is less important than the content and the engagement.”

Mr Woodward said the devolution people voted for in March 2007 was happening and the North’s government was getting on with business.

Mr Woodward added: “Because the Executive has not met this morning doesn’t mean to say that government isn’t going on in Northern Ireland.

“Substantial progress is being made on issues that even six months ago were thought to be intractable

Additional reporting PA