agendaNi takes a look at the latest talks process aimed at resolving the major issues that have brought the Northern Ireland Assembly to a standstill.
On 21 September Northern Ireland’s political leaders embarked on a new round of all-party talks designed to overcome the current political crisis sparked by the murder of former IRA member Kevin McGuigan. Following his murder, the PSNI confirmed that it believes the structures of the IRA “remain broadly in place.” Sinn Féin has denied these claims and the PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton accepts the bona fide of the Sinn Féin leadership regarding their rejection of violence but that hasn’t eased unionist politicians’ concerns.
This disagreement over the IRA has encapsulated a sense of deadlock that has been brewing for some time in Stormont with the continued dispute over Northern Ireland’s budget and welfare reform. These issues were supposed to have been addressed by talks held earlier in the year that concluded with the Stormont House Agreement. However, the failure to implement this agreement has effectively left Northern Ireland in a precarious position financially and politically.
With her refusal to grant Peter Robinson’s request to suspend the Northern Ireland Assembly, getting unionist politicians to agree to come to the table was quite some task for Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State Theresa Villiers. However, her decision to commission an independent assessment of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland was enough, with Peter Robinson claiming he was “content” with the announcement and Mike Nesbitt describing the move as a “positive step forward.”
The report, which is due to be published in mid-October will be carried out by the UK security agencies and the PSNI. It will also be independently reviewed prior to publication by a panel of three people. The three people who make up the panel are:
• Lord Carlile of Berriew: A Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords. He was the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation from 2001-2011 and has been the independent reviewer of national security arrangements in Northern Ireland since 2007;
• Rosalie Flanagan: A former permanent secretary at the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. From 2002-2010 she was Director of Executive Services in the Office of First Minister and deputy First Minister;
• Stephen Shaw QC: Senior Council in Northern Ireland since 2001, he was called to the Northern Ireland bar in 1980. His background is in commercial chancery and public law work, embracing strategic advice as well as litigation, arbitration and mediation.
Speaking about the panel, Villiers claimed she is “grateful to each of the reviewers for agreeing to take on this important work” and described the panel as a collection of “highly respected individuals” who have an in-depth knowledge of security issues, legal expertise and an understanding of Northern Ireland’s political structures as well as cross-community credibility. While Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan described the panel as a “one off exercise” that will be used to consider “how the impact and legacy of paramilitary activity should be best addressed.”
Despite this praise, sceptics question what additional information the panel members will be able to access that hasn’t been provided by the PSNI and intelligence services.
Some of the contentious issues up for debate in this series of talks are:
• the existence of the IRA: unionist politicians want this item to be top of the list with Mike Nesbitt claiming that unless Sinn Féin acknowledge the existence of the IRA in some form then the talks are doomed;
• the revival of a ceasefire monitoring body: this concept has won support not only amongst unionist politician’s but has also received the backing of the Irish Government;
• the South Armagh issue: the establishment of a cross-border task force to tackle the problem of cross-border crime in South Armagh/North Louth;
• welfare reform: the other major dysfunction in Northern Ireland’s power sharing government at present. Unionists and the Alliance party accept it has to happen while, nationalist politician’s are opposed to the idea without other concessions such as the introduction of a lower corporation tax rate.
The first day of the talks was focused on the issues of paramilitary activity and welfare reform with Robinson confirming that the DUP would bring six major proposals to the table, including the construction of a “permanent” structure to examine paramilitary activity. Speaking about the progress made on these subjects, Villiers claimed that it was clear each party “had committed” themselves to the talks and that there was a “focused and productive” discussion of these controversial topics.
However, by the beginning of the second week of talks, Villiers’ language appeared less optimistic, despite claiming that the parties had managed to establish a base from which to take forward their discussions, she suggested that finding an agreement would prove “very difficult.” With the process dragging on into October with little sign of a compromise being reached, Villiers said the parties must reach an agreement in the coming weeks. Speaking at the annual Conservative party conference in Manchester, Villiers warned that there simply wasn’t the time for the talks to last until Christmas and that if an agreement was not reached, the British Government would be forced to intervene and take back welfare powers.
Prime Minster David Cameron also warned Northern Irish politicians that they need to step up and deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. Speaking about the talks process, Cameron set a deadline of the end of October for an agreement to be reached. He said that under the rules of the institutions it is increasingly difficult to have the process stalled and stuck and confirmed that no additional money would be coming from the Treasury to break the deadlock over welfare reform.
“We are being as generous as we can be. What we cannot do is fund a more generous system in Northern Ireland paid for by everybody else,” said Cameron who also welcomed former US Senator Gary Hart’s arrival in Northern Ireland.
Cameron’s stern words have been welcomed by Mike Nesbitt who said the Prime Minister was right to set a deadline for agreement and claimed that it was time for decisions to be made. “I have said consistently these talks were kill or cure for this round of devolution,” he said. “We have to come to a deal, because people’s lives are at risk because of the health service being in crisis. That alone needs to focus us as responsible politicians.”
With the talks set to rumble on amid the impending publication of the independent panel on paramilitaries report, it is clear that the next few weeks will be crucial for the future of the devolved institutions.