Leaders optimistic after NI talks

 

Taoiseach Brian Cowen and British prime minister Gordon Brown Mr Brown played down the impact of the Iris Robinson scandal on the peace process, insisting that an “early” deal for completing devolution was within reach.

The two men met in Downing Street this afternoon to discuss the political uncertainty in Northern Ireland as the DUP and Sinn Féin press ahead with efforts to break the logjam over policing and justice.

In a statement after that meeting, the leaders said: “When we met on December 17th, we said that we believed that the early completion of the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly was both realistic and achievable and that any outstanding issues were capable of resolution by the parties.

"Despite the turbulent events of recent days, we remain firmly of that view."

Mr Cowen and Mr Brown welcomed the current talks between the North parties and said they were available if required "to help bring these discussions to a successful conclusion".

"The completion of the devolution of policing and justice powers will play a vital role in ensuring the stability of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, underpinning the hard won progress that has been achieved over the last number of years."

The two leaders warned the recent attack on PSNI Constable Peadar Heffron last Friday was a "stark reminder that there remain those whose aim is to destroy all that has been achieved".

"The Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements remain the templates for progress in Northern Ireland and we are determined to see them upheld and implemented. Both Governments will continue to encourage, and work with, the parties to bring the outstanding issues to a successful and early resolution."

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams today met his party’s officer board and asked for a delay in an internal meeting of Sinn Féin leaders until the talks had progressed.

As speculation mounts that a deal could be possible, he said: “Last weekend’s planned ardchomhairle meeting was postponed due to the bad weather.

“The national officer board today decided not to convene an ardchomhairle meeting until the negotiating team is able to make a more definitive report about the current discussions about a date for the transfer of powers on policing and justice.”

SDLP leader Mark Durkan met Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness today for discussions.

Mr Durkan later said: “It seems to the SDLP that a humbler DUP has now found a clearer perspective on the devolution of justice and policing.

“The issue now is how decisive they will be about delivering completion.

“Our engagement with other parties and governments has centred on the responsibilities we all have to end uncertainty and wrangling, and the opportunity we now have to recover some credibility for our damaged political process.”

Dublin and London viewed as positive acting First Minister Arlene Foster’s comment yesterday that resolving the Sinn Féin/DUP standoff to facilitate the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Executive was “the last piece of the jigsaw”.

DUP leader Peter Robinson, who has temporarily stood down as First Minister, was in London yesterday on personal business relating to his wife Iris’s illness but has been keeping in touch with the negotiations and is due to be directly involved shortly.

Northern Secretary Shaun Woodward, who met Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin in Dublin on Tuesday night, called on unionists to reach a deal on policing and justice. He warned against parties leaving a political “vacuum” that could be exploited by dissident republicans.

Ms Foster’s elevation to the post of acting First Minister and her key involvement in the talks was seen as significant to progress being made. While Ms Foster was also tight-lipped in relation to any detail, her comments pointed to continuing behind-the-scenes progress.

She said the PSNI was already accountable but stressed that the DUP must ensure any deal was done “in the right way”.

“I believe it will be for the best for the people of Northern Ireland, but we must do it in a way that we bring it to a Northern Ireland that is stable so the policing powers that come here will be durable and lasting,” Ms Foster told the BBC.

“Our chief constable would say he’s already the most accountable chief constable in these islands,” she added.

“There is a lot of devolved power already in Northern Ireland in relation to policing and justice – this is really the last piece of the jigsaw and we want to make sure that we’re doing it in the right way.”

While the Traditional Unionist Voice party leader Jim Allister and even relatively moderate Ulster Unionist Party leader Sir Reg Empey raised further hurdles for the DUP to make a deal, both the DUP and Sinn Féin negotiating teams appeared to be making steady progress.