DUP vexed with Theresa Villiers’ statement on Stormont crisis

Robinson and Foster raise doubts about whether substantive negotiations can start

DUP acting First Minister Arlene Foster has described as "disappointing" a statement by Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers that "serious consideration" should be given to creating a new body to determine the status of the IRA and other paramilitary groups.

Ms Foster made clear that the DUP was expecting more from Ms Villiers than her assessment that there could be a role for a new body similar to the former Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) in evaluating whether the IRA and other paramilitary groups were still operating.

Ms Foster said Ms Villiers’ statement on the Stormont crisis to the House of Commons on Tuesday was disappointing. “There are elements of it, of course, that are interesting and we will consider those but really it is only a holding statement,” she said.

There wasn’t anything “adequate” in Ms Villiers’ statement “that would allow us to move forward into a substantive talks process”, added Ms Foster.

“She needs to do more than just look and consider; we need to see action in relation to those matters and we hope over the coming days that we will see that,” she said.

The acting First Minister is the only DUP Minister still in the Northern Executive after DUP leader Peter Robinson last week stood aside from his post as First Minister and withdrew all his other Ministers from the Executive.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt also withdrew his single Minister, Danny Kennedy, from the Executive in response to the police assessment that the IRA is still in existence and that some of its members were implicated in the murder last month of Belfast republican Kevin McGuigan, although without the authority of the IRA leadership.

Mr Robinson described Ms Villiers’ remarks as a “holding statement” and added that it “delays start of talks”. He indicated he is expecting some further elaboration from Ms Villiers.

“Heard SoS’s holding statement & commitment ‘in the coming days’ to respond to concerns. This delays start of Talks. We await her response,” he tweeted.

Downbeat DUP

Ms Villiers and the Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan are back at Stormont House on Wednesday to engage in more bilateral and trilateral discussions with the North's five main parties.

But following the downbeat DUP response the British and Irish governments are now reconciled to this week mainly being about “talks about talks” with the hope that more substantial roundtable negotiations might begin next week.

UUP leader Mr Nesbitt, who is also attending Wednesday’s talks, said of Ms Villiers’ statement: “The words uttered in the Commons today don’t really move us forward very much. But it is a process and we are keen to see a resolution.”

Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy said the situation was “farcical” and was getting worse by the day. “If people are not going to be prepared to go into those talks the only other option is an election, so this needs to be called very, very quickly,” he said.

SDLP MLA Alex Attwood said there must be no "unilateral dig-out" for the DUP. He said it was time to "hold the line on the Good Friday Agreement in the face of DUP demands and hold all to account on the rule of law in the face of Sinn Féin denials".

Ms Villiers as well as flagging up the possibility of a new IMC-type body also appeared to indicate a potential role for the National Crime Agency and also for similar agencies in the South in tackling various forms of crime involving current or former paramilitaries.

"The government will also actively consider whether there is more that we can do to support efforts to tackle organised crime and cross-Border crime in Northern Ireland. In the days to come, we will continue to listen carefully to representations made to us on the best way to ensure all parties can engage in the process," the Northern Secretary told MPs.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times