SDLP 'ineligible' for talks

Unionists say protest resignation has disqualified party

The Northern Ireland peace process was under new pressure last night after Unionists claimed the Social and Democratic Labour Party could have disqualified themselves from the multi-party talks.

The resignation of John Hume and his 20 SDLP colleagues from the Northern Ireland Forum, in protest at the Royal Ulster Constabulary's handling of the Orange Order stand-off at Drumcree in Co Armagh earlier this month, meant they hadexcluded themselves from the Stormont negotiations, it was alleged.

David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party are to ask for a meeting with Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to seek clarification of the SDLP position in future talks. All sides are due to meet again on Monday for the first substantive session of dialogue since they first sat down together two months ago. They are then expected to break for a summer recess before meeting again in September.

Jeffrey Donaldson, UUP secretary, said the SDLP decision to pull out of the Forum, a consultative body of 120 members that sits separately but which has no powers, was a bitter disappointment. Dialogue and understanding was a priority at this difficult time in Northern Ireland, he said.

Mr Donaldson said: "We are seeking clarification as to the legal status of the SDLP. Their resignation calls into question their ability to participate in the negotiations since the Act establishing the basis for those talks makes it clear that only elected delegates can negotiate on behalf of the various parties."

The resignations were confirmed yesterday by the SDLP chairman, Jonathan Stephenson.

Letters to John Major and the Forum chairman, John Gorman, said: "It is imperative that the SDLP registers the serious erosion of trust and confidence in the present process and the anger felt by nationalists and others at the capitulation of the authorities to threats of violence and subversion."

Ian Paisley claimed SDLP members who resigned had excluded themselves from the Stormont talks. It was now a matter for the Secretary of State, he said.

The Democratic Unionist Party leader added: "This forum is the door to the talks and if you refuse to go through the door, then you cannot remain at the them."

The non-sectarian Alliance Party said the SDLP withdrawal from the Forum had damaged the process. Sean Neeson, an Alliance councillor, said: "It takes away a lot of the cross-community element which is required, but I hope the way remains open for them to continue with the Stormont talks."

Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, claimed the peace process had been killed off. He added that the talks at Stormont lacked credibility and urgent action was needed. There had to be a new initiative for peace led by both governments.

Mr McGuinness said: "It must be an inclusive process based on equality with no pre-conditions, with all relevant issues on the agenda and nothing agreed until everything is agreed. There must be no vetoes and no attempt to pre-determine or exclude any outcome. Clearly it also requires a time- frame to inject the necessary dynamic for progress."

A peace process required the participation of all parties and the Government, he said, should be talking to Sinn Fein.

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