Theresa Villiers: Leaders must not waste opportunity to secure Stormont future

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers

Northern Ireland’s political leaders must not squander the opportunity to save Stormont, Theresa Villiers has warned.

On the eve of crunch negotiations over the future of the powersharing institutions, the Northern Ireland Secretary has urged politicians to embrace the spirit of compromise.

She said: “I recognise the scale of the task ahead. We are dealing with very difficult issues.

“But Northern Ireland’s political leaders have achieved great things over the past 20 years working together. That same spirit needs to be brought into these talks.

“We must not let this opportunity to build a brighter, more secure future for Northern Ireland slip away.”

The talks facilitated by the British and Irish governments are aimed at resolving outstanding difficulties around the legacy of the Troubles, the budget and implementation of controversial welfare cuts.

They are due to begin at Stormont House on Monday.

At this stage it is unclear whether Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson, who was admitted to hospital on Saturday after suffering an adverse reaction to prescribed medication, will be in attendance.

The devolved Assembly is on the brink of collapse after unionists pulled out all but one of their ministers from the five-party Executive following the murder of a man last month.

Police said individual members of the Provisional IRA were involved in the shooting of Kevin McGuigan, 53, in a suspected revenge attack for the murder of former IRA commander Gerard “Jock” Davison three months earlier.

An assessment by Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) chief constable George Hamilton that the IRA was not on a “war footing” but exists to pursue a peaceful political republican agenda did little to quell unionist concern.

Negotiations had been due to start last week but the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), who were first to withdraw from the Executive, walked out because paramilitary activity was not top of the agenda.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who had called for an adjournment or suspension, also refused to engage in “business as usual” at Stormont and Peter Robinson removed all but one of his ministers and temporarily stood aside as First Minister.

On Friday, Government plans for an independent assessment of paramilitary activity were welcomed by both the DUP and UUP who committed to being at the negotiating table.

A three-person panel to examine findings from the security agencies such as MI5 and police on the structure, role and purpose of proscribed organisations is due to be appointed this week.

It will report back next month and conclusions be used to inform the cross party talks process.

Ms Villiers said: “These talks are crucial for Northern Ireland.

“We must deal with continued activity by paramilitary organisations and bring about the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement.”

The Stormont House Agreement was brokered in December 2013 and aimed to tackle outstanding issues not dealt with in the peace process.

Ulster Unionist chairman Lord Empey said the Stormont Assembly had not yet lived up to public expectations.

He said: “Our aim now is to deal once and for all with the undercurrent of paramilitarism which continues to hang over our community, from whichever side it comes, and the totally incredible assertion of Sinn Fein in their public comments about the IRA.

“The police and both governments on one side of the facts and Gerry Adams on the other is not a recipe for the stability we are determined to establish.”