UUP opposes NI policing deal

 

The Ulster Unionists insisted today they remained opposed to the landmark agreement to devolve policing powers to Northern Ireland despite weekend contact from the US administration.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton phoned UUP leader Sir Reg Empey after his party announced on Friday that it would not back the Hillsborough Agreement at a crucial vote at the Stormont Assembly this Tuesday.

Sir Reg said he appreciated the call from Mrs Clinton, but stressed that his party still intended to vote ‘No’ on the proposal to transfer law and order responsibilities from London to Belfast in April.

“She (Mrs Clinton) has always taken a very keen interest in Northern Ireland and I thanked her for the call,” he said.

“She’s obviously very anxious to see a successful resolution but I explained the situation we faced. She was very pleasant and helpful and I think she understands our view that we should have been more involved (in the Hillsborough talks).”

Sir Reg said “nothing substantive” had developed over the weekend to address any of his party’s concerns over the wide-ranging agreement on justice devolution and parades that was hammered out after 10 days of round the clock talks between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionists at Hillsborough Castle, Co Down last month.

However, the East Belfast MLA did not close the door on a potential change of position ahead of the UUP executive meeting tomorrow night, when the party will make a final decision on how it will vote.

While Sinn Féin and the DUP have the electoral strength to push through the accord when it is put before the Assembly, a rejection from the UUP will deprive them of the unanimous support they crave.

The Ulster Unionist stance is also potentially problematic for the Conservative Party, which has an electoral pact with the UUP in Northern Ireland.

David Cameron is a supporter of the Hillsborough deal and he now faces the prospect of going to the polls aligned to a party which opposes it.

The UUP claim the Stormont Executive needs to demonstrate an ability to address other outstanding issues facing it - such as the uncertainty over education reforms - before it can be trusted with security powers.

After spelling out the party position on Friday, the UUP sent proposals to all Stormont’s other parties in a bid to address its concerns.

A working group jointly chaired by Sir Reg to look at improving the working of the Executive meets tomorrow morning and the UUP leader said those discussions could have some impact on his party’s thinking.

He said while no talks were scheduled tomorrow with DUP First Minister Peter Robinson or Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, he would welcome a meeting with them.

“If something arises, then it arises,” he said. “I would be very willing to meet.” It is understood Mrs Clinton also called Mr McGuinness to discuss the state of play ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

Yesterday Mr McGuinness told his party's adfheis the Ulster Unionists had three days to “sort themselves out”, accusing them of pursuing a “negative and rejectionist agenda”.

The DUP had initially cast doubt over whether it would back the deal if the UUP did not row in behind it, but Mr Robinson has been more upbeat in recent days, indicating that he is prepared to go ahead without Ulster Unionist backing.

But Stormont’s two main parties, and the British and Irish Governments, have stressed the importance of a unanimous vote, claiming it would send out a loud message to those seeking to undermine the power-sharing institutions, in particular dissident republicans.

PA