Sunday Life

Make or break time for MLAs

By Alan Murray
12 September 2004

The Stormont Assembly will be wound up and MLAs will lose their salaries before the end of the year, if the Leeds Castle talks fail this week.

That's the hint being dropped in private by Tony Blair, according to senior unionist sources.

The Prime Minister is looking for definite political progress during the three days of talks, in Kent.

But the sources say Mr Blair is conscious that for the last two years he has been saying that the process has to make progress, to restore credibility to the political institutions created by the Good Friday Agreement.

Secretary of State, Paul Murphy, hinted last week at a tougher government stance, when he warned that the Leeds Castle talks shouldn't be seen as a 'staging post' and a prelude for further tortuous discussions.

But, there is little expectation that the DUP will conclude a deal with Sinn Fein - even if the IRA was to indicate that it will make significant moves on disarmament, in the coming months.

Informed sources say party leader, Ian Paisley's description of journalists, who wrote articles on his health, as 'Romanists', has caused major concern within republican ranks.

And they believe it has weakened Gerry Adams' argument for significant moves on weapons decommissioning.

"The Doc's performance at Stormont was unfortunately vintage Paisley, and it spooked a lot of the Sinn Fein people.

"Activists are inclined to interpret it as the old 'I wouldn't have a Catholic about the place' line.

"(Peter) Robinson can set the optimistic scene, but Ian Paisley can thunder in and wreck it," one politician, familiar with Downing Street thinking, said.

He added: "The strong hint has been dropped in the last few days, via senior officials, that the Assembly can't continue as it is, with MLAs being paid and expenses being paid, without the whole thing functioning properly again.

"How long they would keep it going would be the only real question. So, if there's no sign of agreement next week on the major issues, then it could be mothballed very quickly, certainly before Christmas."

Meanwhile, DUP negotiator, Nigel Dodds, has said his party's demands on IRA decommissioning were unalterable.

"We have come to the end of the road with nods and winks, and we will hold firm on that. If decommissioning occurs it will have to be done in a credible way, and in a way that will boost public confidence", he said yesterday.

Deputy leader, Peter Robinson, also warned yesterday: "An incremental approach from republicans won't cut it this time. Either they divvy up, or there is no deal."

Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, said it was imperative that the talks at Leeds Castle produced a successful outcome.

"We can't allow events to continue to drift," he said.

"While some participants are reluctant to engage in meaningful dialogue, the crisis and the breakdown was caused by the IRA failing to live up to the obligations placed upon it by the Belfast Agreement.

"It's essential that they recognise those shortcomings and make the appropriate redress", he said.

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