Back from brink? Northern Irish parties agree to crisis talks

Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers. © Cathal McNaughton
Northern Ireland’s five main Unionist and Catholic nationalist parties have agreed to begin talks in an attempt to save the tenuous power-sharing government on Monday, amid heightened tensions following a murder linked to the IRA.

Allegations of IRA involvement in the murder of former republican prisoner Kevin McGuigan last month plunged the region into crisis and left the government teetering on the verge of collapse. Last week, the province’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) First Minister Peter Robinson resigned from his post. All but one of the DUP ministers followed suit.

“Recent events have highlighted the continuing impact and legacy of paramilitary organizations in Northern Ireland. This needs to be tackled as a matter of urgency,” said Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers in a statement. “The fallout has damaged political relationships making it more difficult for meaningful talks to begin.”

Recent developments have jeopardized the fragile ceasefire established by a 1998 peace treaty that ended 30 years of violence between Catholics, who wanted to join the Republic of Ireland, and Protestants, who wished to remain a part of Britain.

Sinn Fein, the largest republican party in Northern Ireland, has repeatedly denied IRA involvement in McGuigan’s murder.

Villiers announced on Friday the UK government has commissioned an assessment of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland to be published in mid-October. The report’s findings are to inform the talks between the Northern Irish parties.

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“I am announcing today that the government has commissioned a factual assessment from the UK security agencies and the PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland] on the structure, role and purpose of paramilitary organizations in Northern Ireland," she said.

DUP had refused to commit to the crisis talks until assurances were given that the negotiations would address the question of paramilitary activity. On Friday, Peter Robinson announced that the DUP would participate in the talks.

“I am not in the business of wrecking devolution,” said Robinson. “Today’s statement by the secretary of state is a welcome first step in demonstrating that the government are taking our concerns seriously.”