Ahern, Blair to lead Northern Ireland talks

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Saturday, May 27, 2006

Logo of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern
British Prime Minister Tony Blair

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, has announced that next month, the Prime Ministers of both Ireland and the United Kingdom will meet with the parties of the Northern Ireland Assembly before the summer break.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, will meet at Hillsborough Castle, possibly on June 27, to hold "intensive talks" with the parties and to establish a "clear timeline" to the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland.

Hain has invited all the parties of the Assembly to form a committee to discuss obstacles to formation of a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland.

Hain has asked Assembly speaker Eileen Bell to convene the first meeting of the committee on June 6 in order to prepare for the talks. The committee is expected to have three members from the four main parties (the DUP, UUP, SDLP and Sinn Féin) and two from the Alliance Party.

The two main parties did not take the news kindly. The Democratic Unionist Party will not sit on the committee if it leads to negotiations with the republicans as it continues not engage in direct talks with Sinn Féin nor will DUP take part in talks running alongside the talks between the parties and the premiers.

Sinn Féin says it will not sit on the committee if it turns out to be only a "talking shop". However, Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin said the party will judge the committee "on its ability to contribute to the restoration of the power-sharing executive".

The Social Democratic and Labour Party says it will only enter if the committee "is the vehicle for restoration of the agreement's institutions, not a talking shop or meaningless sideshow".

However, Ulster Unionist Party leader Sir Reg Empey was more optimistic and welcomed the initiative, commenting that the committee would "ensure adequate cross-community consensus". Empey further added, "This committee prevents the DUP from running away from the substantive work that needs to be done in identifying the blockages that are standing in the way of the restoration of devolution."

Attempts to form a new Northern Ireland Executive failed Monday when Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, refused the nomination to be the First Minister of Northern Ireland after being nominated by Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams.

Last month, Blair and Ahern made a joint statement calling for the return of home rule government in Northern Ireland as part of a plan by the two. They set a deadline of November 24 for power-sharing government to be set up in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has been suspended since October 2002 over allegations of a IRA spy ring. One of the men implicated, Denis Donaldson, turned out to be a spy for British intelligence, he was murdered in his home on April 4, 2006, a few days before the statement by Blair and Ahern.

If no power-sharing government is formed by November 24, direct rule from London will continue but with greater input by the Republic of Ireland, a proposition which has greatly irked some unionists.