Cowen set for talks with Brown over devolution


Taoiseach Brian Cowen is to meet Prime Minister Gordon Brown at Downing Street tomorrow for talks on the deadlock in Northern Ireland’s devolution negotiatons.

The meeting comes amid growing tension over the process, with Sinn Féin saying yesterday Deputy Prime Minister Martin McGuinness is to seek a 'defining' meeting with First Minister Peter Robinson over devolving justice and policing powers to Stormont. They are expected to meet in Belfast tomorrow.

In 2006, Sinn Féin backed the new policing arrangements set out in the St Andrew's Agreement on condition that the Assembly eventually took over political responsibility for policing and justice from Westminster.

There had been fears that Mr McGuinness could step down as Deputy First Minister over the stalemate in talks. Such a move would have allowed just seven days to resolve issues between the leading parties in the Executive before elections would have to be called.

Speaking on RTÉ’s This Week today, Mr Cowen said he was “very concerned” at the failure of Sinn Féin and the DUP to reach agreement.

“We’re in a serious situation. Obviously, the ideal situation is for Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister and First Minister Peter Robinson to come to agreement on these outstanding issues that have to be resolved and work with the other parties that are part of the process,” he said.

The Taoiseach said he  would be working with Mr Brown over the coming days to help broker a solution. “We’ll do everything we can to assist the parties,” he said. “The parties need to move forward and get decisions consistent with the undertakings and agreements we have.”

Mr Cowen’s visit to London comes just 11 days after his last talks with Mr Brown. A Downing Street spokesman said tomorrow afternoon’s talks were “part of ongoing discussions on Northern Ireland”.

Mr McGuinness spoke to Mr Cowen and Mr Brown separately by telephone today, a Sinn Féin spokesman confirmed.

Speaking after Sinn Féin's ardcomhairle in Dublin yesterday, party president Gerry Adams said the leadership had a lengthy meeting on the future of the stalled negotiations. He said they decided not to pull out of the process despite frustration at the lack of progress but warned that if a solution was not reached, the institutions set up under the Belfast Agreement "become pointless and unsustainable”.

He said Sinn Féin was committed to finding a solution, which he said could be achieved if there was the political will. He argued that his party, unlike the  DUP, had fulfilled its obligations under the terms of the St Andrew's Agreement.

"The failure thus far by the DUP to honour this St Andrew's obligation is symptomatic of a much bigger problem - their refusal to work partnership government," he said.

Mr Adams said the meeting between Mr McGuinness and Mr Robinson would be a “critical and defining engagement”. But he declined to spell out publicly what sort of timeframe his party was putting on the talks, beyond which they would pull out if no agreement were reached.

“We consciously decided that we weren’t going to go into anything which would be interpreted by others, deliberately or otherwise, as a threat or ultimatum or deadline,” he said. “But, having said that, if it isn’t working on the basis that it was established, then no self-respecting political party or public representative would be part of something which is fast becoming a charade.”

The DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson said today Sinn Féin should ‘calm down’. “I think it's time that they calmed down a bit and let's engage to resolve the outstanding issues,” he said. “We remain at the table ready and willing to discuss those issues and move the process forward.”

Alliance Party leader David Ford, who is expected to be nominated as the justice minister, said Sinn Féin and the DUP must work to secure a deal and claimed progress could have been made at Stormont.