Saturday 16 December 2017

McGuinness seeks urgent meeting on devolution

Unionist parties in merger talks

Daniel McConnell and Alan Murray

Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister, is to seek a "critical and defining" meeting with First Minister Peter Robinson to discuss the future of devolution of policing and justice powers to Stormont.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams made the announcement following a meeting of Sinn Fein Ard Comhairle at Dublin Airport yesterday.

The party's senior figures met to review its participation in the North's Executive following the collapse of talks with the Democratic Unionist Party on the issue.

Mr Adams said the political institutions could work only if they function on the basis they were established. However, he said he believed the matter could be resolved.

"Our negotiating team has been given a very specific brief. Martin McGuinness will be seeking an urgent meeting with Peter Robinson. This will be a critical and defining engagement," he said.

He added: "This is not a game of poker. If the institutions are not working and not delivering , then they become pointless and unsustainable.

"What we are about is fixing the problems and returning to the basis upon which these institutions were established -- Good Friday Agreement and St Andrews Agreement. If that is not possible then no self-respecting public representative or political party would want to be part of what would be nothing less than a charade," he added.

The two main unionist blocs are to hold further talks to explore the possibility of creating one new party to prevent Sinn Fein securing the position of First Minister in a new Stormont administration.

Key strategists in both the DUP and the UUP discussed the proposition at the invitation of the Conservative Party in England last weekend.

There is some speculation that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss a pact between the two parties for the British general election later this year but informed sources have confirmed that the discussions were more far-reaching and related to a long-term political amalgamation.

Senior political figures in both the DUP and the UUP have concluded that a legal coming together of the two is the only way to stop Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister in the North.

Two years ago, Senator Eoghan Harris shocked senior Ulster Unionists when he warned them that the only way to stop Sinn Fein becoming the major political party was a merger with the DUP. Senior UUP figures were not well pleased but the wider unionist community was more receptive.

The broadly unionist Belfast Newsletter carried the lengthy speech in full.

Harris advised the UUP to "sieze the initiative from what is still a relatively strong position and become the proactive party for a new united unionism". He warned the DUP too that it was "not invincible" and must recognise there was "no strategic basis for two competing unionist parties".

The Sinn Fein Ard Comhairle yesterday discussed whether to engage in one further round of negotiations with the DUP to try to secure the transfer of policing and justice powers to Stormont or abandon talks and collapse the power-sharing Executive.

The British Conservative Party is keen for the two unionist groupings to amalgamate because it fears inheriting a meltdown in Northern Ireland if Martin McGuinness is to become First Minister after an election.

Senior figures in the less hardline UUP say that even their members would refuse to serve under a Sinn Fein First Minister.

It would cause major upheaval in the unionist community and lead to a loss of confidence and the repercussions politically would be enormous. There would be no trust in that situation and it could cause mayhem in society and on the streets during the marching season, one senior party source said.

A Conservative MP who is aware of the discussions which took place last weekend in the south of England confirmed that the Tories were concerned that it could inherit a meltdown situation in Northern Ireland if it came to power after a general election in May.

There is opposition in both the UUP and the DUP to the proposed merger. Some DUP hardliners are arguing that there should no merger at all and that if a new Assembly election results in Sinn Fein becoming the majority party then the Secretary of State should be told that no government can be formed and that the Assembly should be put into suspension until negotiations resolve the outstanding issues.

Sunday Independent

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