The political crisis threatening powersharing in Northern Ireland must not be allowed to drift, the former secretary of state who triggered Stormont’s last major suspension has warned.
Lord Reid of Cardowan stressed the need for urgent resolution in a House of Lords intervention on the furore sparked by a murder linked to the IRA.
The SDLP met the Irish premier this morning as pressure mounted on the smaller parties in the Northern Ireland Executive to adjourn the Assembly as a means to avert the suspension or collapse of powersharing.
The Democratic Unionists have threatened to resign from the Executive - a move that would spark the collapse of powersharing - if the Assembly is not adjourned or suspended until intensive cross-party talks on the crisis are completed.
Lord Reid said any talks process had to have a deadline.
“Will the Government give us an assurance that this will be time-limited? Because if they are not, I can assure you from experience, they will drift on indefinitely and this crisis will just get worse,” he told the Lords.
Responding on behalf of the UK Government, Lord Dunlop said the negotiations needed to be “focused, intensive and urgent”.
As secretary of state, Lord Reid suspended the Assembly in 2002 in the wake of a police raid on a suspected IRA spying operation at Stormont. Powersharing was not reintroduced until 2007.
The Assembly’s business committee will meet this afternoon to vote on the DUP’s adjournment proposal. If it is rejected, the DUP wants Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers to enact emergency legislation to suspend proceedings. Without adjournment or suspension, First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson has vowed to walk out by the end of the day.
Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny met SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell in Dublin to discuss the adjournment option. Afterwards the SDLP leader travelled north to Belfast to brief his party colleagues.
With the DUP in favour and Sinn Fein opposed to the move, the stance of the SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance will be crucial.
The UUP, which has already resigned from the Executive claiming trust in Sinn Fein has been destroyed, has said it will only vote for adjournment if the republican party, and in particular its president Gerry Adams, admits the IRA still exists.
UUP MP Tom Elliott said: “The calls for an adjournment under the present circumstances, and all the rest, is bluster - a sham.
“We will support an adjournment if Gerry Adams comes up to the mark. We will not turn a blind eye to recent events.”
While adjournment or suspension would see business at the Assembly frozen for a period, the first option leaves control of resumption in the hands of local parties, rather than the Government.
The Executive cannot function without the DUP, the region’s largest unionist party. However, if the party resigns its ministerial posts the institutions will not fall immediately, as the party will be given seven days to renominate ministers. If no renominations materialise then the powersharing Executive will collapse, prompting the prospect of snap elections or a lengthy spell of direct rule.
Mr Robinson wants all parties to focus on crisis talks aimed at dealing with the remnants of paramilitarism in Northern Ireland as well as issues left over from the peace process.
He issued his ultimatum on Wednesday after the arrest of three senior republicans, including Sinn Fein’s northern chairman Bobby Storey, over the fatal shooting of former IRA man 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 revelations about the IRA have heaped pressure on Sinn Fein to explain why the supposedly defunct paramilitary organisation is still in existence.
Mr Adams said the Irish government had attempted to convince Sinn Fein to support adjournment - overtures his party rejected.
“The current contrived crisis is a result of inter-unionist rivalry and the cynical exploitation of the murder of Kevin McGuigan,” he said.
“An adjournment will reward bad behaviour and further undermine confidence in the political process. It will play into the hands of those who murdered Mr McGuigan and others who want the political institutions to fail.”
Mr Adams said it would be wrong for Mr Kenny to pressurise the SDLP to support adjournment.
“This is a mistake,” he said. “The Taoiseach is obliged to uphold the Good Friday Agreement and other agreements, and to defend the political institutions. This is what he should do.