Martin McGuinness warns against preconditions for talks to save powersharing
TALKS to save Northern Ireland's floundering powersharing government cannot have preconditions attached, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness has warned.
Amid uncertainty over whether one-to-one meetings in Belfast involving the Executive parties and the British and Irish governments will progress to round-table negotiations, Stormont's Deputy First Minister said if full-scale talks fail, or do not proceed, then the next logical step is a snap election.
The Executive is teetering on the verge of collapse as a result of a crisis sparked by a murder linked to the IRA.
The Ulster Unionists have quit the mandatory coalition government and the Democratic Unionists have pulled four of their five ministers out of the administration.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has insisted negotiations can only proceed if Sinn Fein stops denying the IRA exists.
The republican party has vehemently rejected the assessment of police chiefs and the two governments that structures of the IRA are still in operation.
Mr McGuinness said: "I do think that as we enter into these discussions that it is very, very important that we do so on the basis of no preconditions.
"And I want to see, and am working for, talks to take place with a view to a successful outcome. But if talks are not going to take place and if talks do take place and there is no successful outcome then, in my view, the next logical step is to an election, and that is my very firm and strong view. Our party has no fear whatsoever of an election."
The Sinn Fein veteran said the choice for the parties boiled down to achieving success in the talks or facing the electorate at the polls.
"That is the stark choice facing all of the parties in this process," he said.
Earlier, Mr Nesbitt said Sinn Fein's attitude to whether the IRA is still in business would "kill or cure" powersharing in Northern Ireland.
He made the assessment as he emerged from his party's bilateral meeting with Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers at Stormont House.
Mr Nesbitt urged against round-table talks until Sinn Fein's stance had been established.
"We have cautioned against holding a round-table discussion at this time until the Secretary of State gets a feel of where others, particularly Sinn Fein, are with regard to the way forward," he said.
The latest crisis to beset the faltering administration was sparked by the murder of Kevin McGuigan.
Police have said current members of the IRA were involved in last month's shooting of Mr McGuigan in a suspected revenge attack for the murder of former IRA commander Gerard "Jock" Davison in Belfast three months earlier.
The disclosures about the IRA have heaped pressure on Sinn Fein to explain why the police assess that the supposedly defunct paramilitary organisation is still in existence.
Sinn Fein insists the IRA has gone away and has accused the two unionist parties of contriving a crisis for electoral gain.
The SDLP's Alex Attwood insisted Stormont needed to get back to the principles that underpinned the historic 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
"This is going to be a big test for all the political parties but it is an even bigger test for the two governments," he said.
"This week and the weeks of these negotiations, if they last this long, will be judged by the people on whether we get back to the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement despite the damage done to them over the last 10 to 15 years and that we get back to the defence of the rule of law, despite the damage that others have done to that and its practice in Northern Ireland over the last 15 years.
"Those are the twin pillars of the future."
Alliance party leader David Ford said all issues destabilising Stormont, including the still-un-implemented Stormont House political deal of last year, needed to be addressed in the talks.
"We have made it absolutely clear that Alliance is determined that we resolve the outstanding issues from Stormont House, we resolve the financial issues and the issues of dealing with the past," he said.
"We also must deal with the threat of violence as it exists on both sides of the community now and permanently."
Both the SDLP and Alliance delegation were confronted by a small group of victims campaigners outside the talks venue.
The three women, who all lost loved ones in the Troubles, claimed that structures envisaged to deal with the legacy of the past could see effective amnesties handed to killers.
SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell said the party had made "constructive" proposals during talks with the British and Irish governments this morning.
"We feel that the process would be enhanced significantly if the Americans were more involved."
He said the party would not allow the DUP to do any further damage to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement or the North/South institutions on co-operation between Belfast and Dublin.