“Hard going” Northern Ireland talks resume following late-night discussions until 3:30am

The Northern Ireland talks resumed this morning with all parties still hopeful of a deal following negotiations until 3:30am that were described as "hard going"

The talks between the British and Irish Governments and the leaders of Northern Ireland’s main parties will resume this morning following late-night negotiations that lasted until 3:30am. A spokesman for Gordon Brown described the talks as “hard going”, saying there was a “frank discussion across a range of issues”.

The make-or-break talks, held at Hillsborough Castle, County Down, are crucial to prevent the collapse of the power-sharing agreement and the dissolution of the Assembly.

The PM’s spokesman added:

“The prime minister and Taoiseach remain determined that progress can be made, so discussions will continue on Tuesday morning.

“The PM is meeting the taoiseach this morning, followed by further meetings with the leadership of Sinn Fein and the DUP leadership later this morning.”

Mr Brown and his Irish couterpart Brian Cowen had arrived in Belfast yesterday evening for crunch talks on policing and justice with Northern Ireland’s political parties. The unscheduled trip came following a meeting between the two leaders in Downing Street.

Yesterday, Left Foot Forward reported on the air of crisis that has emerged at Stormont, following Sinn Fein’s decision to pull out of talks with the DUP on devolving police and justice powers, in protest over the DUP’s apparent reluctance to see such powers devolved any time soon.

Speaking following their meeting at Downing Street, the Prime Minister remained upbeat on prospects for a deal, saying:

“We believe that the problems that exist in devolving policing and justice are soluble problems. We believe it is right for Northern Ireland to move forward in this way and we believe that together we can assist in the completion of these talks.”

Mr Cowen added:

“We are going to Belfast to see in what way we can assist. It is very important that we get a successful outcome to these discussions and we believe that our going there should help bring a conclusion to the devolution issues.”

In 2006, all Parties signed up to the St Andrews Agreement which envisaged policing and justice powers being devolved to Stormont by May 2008. Since then a clear divide has emerged between Northern Ireland’s main Unionist and Republican parties.

The Democratic Unionist Party has made clear that it will not accept the devolution of such powers until there is sufficient community confidence in the move. Sinn Fein however are more eager to see such powers devolved, believing that the transfer of said powers to Stormont was connected to the party’s historic decision to drop its long standing opposition to the police service in Northern Ireland.

It has since emerged that the DUP wish to see the Parades Commission scrapped. This body has the power to ban the Protestant Orange Order from holding marches through largely Catholic neighbourhoods.

Speaking before his meeting yesterday with DUP Leader Peter Robinson, Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, was visibly annoyed as he attacked the DUP:

“Within three months of the St Andrews agreement we in Sinn Fein moved forward decisively on the issue of policing, took what was considered to be an historic and monumental decision. And we did that within three months of St Andrews … to ensure that these institutions would work.

“Three years on, three years on, we are waiting for the DUP to deliver and honour their commitments, that all of us were supposed to have signed up to under the terms of an agreement that was presided over by the Irish Government and the British Government.”

Responding, DUP Finance Minister Sammy Wilson concluded that Mr McGuiness had “thrown a hissy fit”, saying:

“People said we could never deliver this assembly up and running again. When we believed we had got the right things in place we went out and sold it – we have persevered with it and we have had the assembly running now for three years.

“So if we can get something we believe is workable that’s the only criterion we will make – it’s not about ‘have we won or have we lost?’ – if we get something workable we will sell it, and we will sell it hard because we want to see this place working.

Meanwhile, both the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP made clear their view that the number of parties negotiating on policing and justice needed to be widened. UUP Leader, Sir Reg Empey, said:

“We will not be prepared to accept a piece of paper if it was negotiated by others in our absence.”

However, as BBC Northern Ireland’s Political Editor Mark Devenport explained, the sheer brevity of the McGuinness/Robinson meeting did not bode well. He wrote:

“First and Deputy First Ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness met earlier at Stormont, but one must presume did not produce a great deal.

It only lasted for 35 minutes.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.