Robinson pledges fresh SF policing talks


Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson pledged today to intensify talks with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness to ensure the transfer of policing powers to the Stormont government.

His comments came as his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin were deadlocked over a range of issues including the devolution of policing and justice control to the power-sharing administration.

Mr Robinson’s election as First Minister earlier this month was almost derailed when it was feared republicans would refuse to put forward Mr McGuinness as Deputy First Minister in protest over the DUP blocking of republican policies.

Speaking at a major legal conference in Belfast, Mr Robinson gave the first indication of the direction talks between the parties were taking.

“It is a matter of public record that in recent weeks I have discussed these important matters with the Deputy First Minister at some length and I also met and indicated to other party leaders that I want to examine these issues with them as well,” said Mr Robinson.

“I expect I need hardly say that agreement on a way forward has not yet been reached but, for myself, while I cannot be certain, I am not gloomy about the prospects of reaching an agreement which could command the confidence of everyone.

“I am committed and willing to intensify discussions with the Deputy First Minister and others in the period ahead to test the possibilities.

“I will not attempt to characterise anyone else’s position but I can say that there is a growing understanding of all the concerns that attend this debate, including those I have articulated, and a serious engagement is under way on how to resolve those concerns."

In response Mr McGuinness said the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Assembly had to happen quickly.  He underlined that the commitment to the transfer of policing responsibility was central to the St Andrew’s Agreement that formed the blueprint for devolution.

“While Mr Robinson’s comments are fair enough as far as they go, the reality remains that this issue should have been resolved by May under the terms of the St Andrews Agreement and the DUP and the governments are already in default,” he said. “There is an onus on the two governments and all of the parties who were part
of St Andrews to deliver on it.

“We are involved in discussions with the DUP and we have agreed that these will intensify in the short time ahead. The transfer of powers on policing and justice is not an optional extra - it is a commitment which needs to happen and needs to happen quickly.”

Sinn Féin has said the devolution of policing and justice powers to Stormont by May of this year was a commitment contained in the political deal that paved the way for power-sharing government launched in Northern Ireland in May 2007.

Republicans made the historic decision to back the Police Service of Northern Ireland and agree to enter government with the DUP on the basis that policing powers would be devolved to the Belfast parliament from London.

But the DUP has said May 2008 was only a target date and, while they remain committed to the transfer of the powers, they have argued there is not sufficient confidence in the community for the move yet.

The disagreement came as both parties were at odds over a series of issues including education reform, the establishment of an Act to protect the Irish language, the development of a multi-sports stadium on the site of the former Maze prison and the vexed issue of loyal order parades.

Mr Robinson shares the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister with Mr McGuinness.

Former First Minister Ian Paisley stepped down from the job earlier this month. But in the subsequent election process to install Mr Robinson as his replacement, Sinn Féin was in danger of refusing to re-select Mr McGuinness.

The procedural device would have halted the election and threatened to throw the fledgling administration into crisis.

Talks with Prime Minister Gordon Brown in London helped secure pledges from the parties to agree a solution to the unresolved issues and Mr Robinson’s election proceeded.