Govt denies Sinn Féin 'freeze-out' claim

12/02/2005 - 12:40:56

Downing Street today distanced itself from claims by SDLP leader Mark Durkan that it canvassed its party vigorously on forming a devolved executive in the North which would freeze out Sinn Féin.

As SDLP members attended their annual conference in Derry, Mark Durkan claimed British Prime Minister Tony Blair pushed him on the issue of entering a voluntary coalition with unionists during a meeting in January.

Mr Durkan said: “He pushed us very strongly in the direction of voluntary coalition or exclusion, call it what you will. He was quite prepared to accept those terms as being interchangeable.”

The idea of a voluntary coalition at Stormont has been promoted by the Rev Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists and the cross-community Alliance Party.

However, the SDLP has been loath to sign up to it.

A Downing Street spokesman said the British government did not have a fixed idea on the way forward for the North following the failure to revive power-sharing institutions and the political mess in the wake of December’s £26.5m (€38m) Northern Bank robbery in Belfast.

“The government’s position is that it has to explore all the options being put forward by the various parties,” a Downing Street spokesman said.

“That does not mean it has decided on a particular one option.”

Sinn Féin chief negotiator Martin McGuinness said Mr Durkan’s comments were designed to make his party relevant ahead of forthcoming Westminster and local government elections.

“It has always been clear that it was the hope of the British government that the Good Friday Agreement would see the emergence of the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP as the dominant parties in any institution of arrangement,” the Mid Ulster MP said.

The NIO (Northern Ireland Office) script had always preferred to SDLP and the UUP and they have been encouraged in this by Seamus Mallon and Eddie McGrady.

“In reality, today’s remarks by Mark Durkan are an effort by him to make his party relevant going into the election.

“The Electorate has always spoken on this matter and Sinn Féin in confident they will do this again in the upcoming elections.”

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