Sinn Fein to meet British government officials at Stormont
A SINN FEIN delegation led by ardchomhairle member, Mr Martin McGuinness, will resume talks with British government officials at Stormont today, as speculation continues about various forms of electoral packages which might help progress towards all party talks.
The meeting with British officials, the first since the IRA ceasefire ended, is at Sinn Fein's request and is intended to be "a serious engagement", Mr McGuinness said.
Sinn Fein will pursue its call for inclusive negotiations and will argue that the start of such negotiations provides the way forward.
Mr McGuinness said in a statement yesterday: "Any new process must contain copper fastened and unambiguous public assurances that all party talks will be initiated by both governments at the earliest possible date.
"Negotiations need to proceed with urgency and within an agreed time frame, upon an inclusive agenda and without any preconditions whatsoever.
Meanwhile, speculative reports that the two governments are examining several alternative forms of electoral process as part of a possible "package" of measures which might be broadly acceptable to all parties, have drawn a mixed reaction.
One of those alternatives - the use of a list system in which people would be invited to vote might provide a way of circumventing nationalist opposition to an elected forum or convention.
While SDLP policy, as reaffirmed at a general council meeting a fortnight ago, is to totally reject elections to a 90 seat body to negotiate the future of the North, it may look more favourably on a poll aimed simply at giving a democratic endorsement to the parties which would take part in talks.
Mr John Hume indicated at the weekend that such a ballot might not be objected to, provided it took place simultaneously with his proposed referendum and was accompanied by the fixing of a firm date for all party talks.
The DUP, which achieved the largest party mandate in the last European Parliament elections in the North, is also believed to look favourably on the list system.
However, the UUP leader, Mr David Trimble, has flatly rejected elections under any system other than proportional representation.
He said at the weekend: "We have made it clear to the government that we regard the format of the election as a matter of crucial importance. And we don't approve of people trying to rig the result, or indeed having some sort of glorified opinion poll which is no result whatsoever."
He added that the "party list system" would disadvantage the smaller loyalist fringe parties, and he argued that, as it was a system not used in the North previously, it would require major legislation, new procedures and special training of electoral staff.
If you go by the list system you are postponing the election till October at the earliest," Mr Trimble said.
An Alliance Party spokesman also described the alternative process as a "perverse electoral system" designed to favour the DUP, and said its imposition would inevitably delay the process while the legal practicalities were worked out.
"It is undemocratic in that places power in the hand of party leaders rather than in elected representatives who have a constituency to respond to," the spokesman said.
Sinn Fein has not commented specifically on the list system, but has said that any package will be examined carefully to see whether it facilitates the required move forward to all party negotiations.
Mr McGuinness said at the weekend that if a guaranteed date was set for all party talks to begin, the responsibility would devolve upon the Sinn Fein leadership to go back to the IRA with a political analysis which would stress the need for "imaginative initiatives" - in other words, a possible resumption of ceasefire.
Mr Billy Hutchinson, of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), has urged Mr Trimble to either open talks directly with Sinn Fein or to enter all party talks.
"I think he is the key player," Mr Hutchinson said. "He represents the largest party in Northern Ireland and I think he has the opportunity to either open the door or lock it. I think he could open it by agreeing with the governments that there needs to be some form of all party talks or all party discussions before an election."
What was needed at this point was leadership, Mr Hutchinson added. If Mr Trimble was a real leader he could prove it by going to Sinn Fein or by calling all party talks.
Meanwhile, Mr Trimble reacted to criticism by the Tanaiste, Mr Spring, of his placing of "arbitrary obstacles" in the way of a meeting between the two men.
Mr Trimble expressed "amazement" at the comments, and repeated that he would require a specific agreed agenda before meeting Mr Spring.
"I think it is important that we will not discuss with him those things which relate to the internal affairs of the United Kingdom, and Northern Ireland in particular," Mr Trimble said.