Plans for North multi-party talks


Multi-party talks in Northern Ireland will be scheduled before the end of the month in a bid to get the Assembly and Executive back up and running, the Irish and British governments are expected to announce next week.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Cowen, will meet the former NI Executive minister for enterprise, trade and investment, Ulster Unionist MP Mr Reg Empey, in Belfast today during two days of intensive talks with the political parties.

Yesterday, Mr Cowen, speaking following his first meeting with the newly-appointed Northern Secretary, Mr Paul Murphy, said officials should agree "on the mechanics" of the talks next week.

Meanwhile, officials are looking at whether responsibility for police and judicial issues could be devolved to a Northern Assembly quicker than had been predicted, but only if stability is guaranteed.

Emphasising that difficult decisions face all sides, Mr Murphy said: "It is a question of ensuring that we address the central issue that has meant that the Assembly has been suspended: that is the question of paramilitary activity."

The Government appeared content last night following a recommendation by top UK police inspectors that the Police Service of Northern Ireland's Special Branch should be overhauled.

Under the recommendations drawn up by Her Majesty's Inspectors of Constabulary, the Special Branch would be replaced by a new intelligence unit operating according to different rules.

Legislation promised by the British government since last year's Weston Park negotiations will be included in next week's Queen's Speech.

Last night, Government sources said it was still difficult to predict what all of the parties would demand to go along with the resumption of the NI institutions.

"What is clear is that the incremental approach cannot go on. Tony Blair has signalled that. The gestures and the leaps will have to be much, much larger," one told The Irish Times.

A number of other sources said all parties would be asked to accept a list of unspecified "acts of completion" which would probably cover extra policing changes and demilitarisation.

In addition, the Government is pinning considerable hope on a belief that the IRA will come forward with a new statement in the coming weeks "that will generate sufficient momentum".

"We don't know how the parties will react. Some of the unionists may be prepared to accept a statement saying that everything is really over. Others want something more concrete," said a source.

Meanwhile, the Government is expected to announce next week that a meeting of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation will be held in Dublin before Christmas.

Acknowledging the difficulties ahead, Mr Murphy said: "The Assembly is suspended because of a lack of trust, a lack of confidence between parties in Stormont and our job is to ensure that the Good Friday agreement is implemented."

But he warned that the talks must produce results quickly. "We can't have a talks Mark II that are going to go on for a long time. We are not in that business any more," he said during an Iveagh House press conference.

Mr Murphy later met with Mr Ahern in Government Building. Earlier Mr Ahern had complained about the lack of co-operation the Dublin/Monaghan bombing inquiry was receiving from the British.

Besides meeting Mr Empey today, Mr Cowen will also meet with the Women's Coalition. He will meet with Sinn Féin's Mr Martin McGuinness tomorrow morning, along with Mr David Ervine, of the Progressive Unionist Party.