David Cameron and the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny remained in talks critical to rescuing the ailing Northern Ireland peace process last night, amid warnings a deal is still some distance away after more than a year of deadlock.
Ministers in Westminster are deeply worried about a possible collapse of the power-sharing executive in Stormont – and the possible return of rule from London – if the issues cannot be resolved.
One told The Independent: “This is a very dangerous moment. There is a real risk of taking a big and damaging step backwards.”
After Mr Cameron flew in to Belfast for the talks yesterday – a rare intervention into Northern Irish politics by the Prime Minister – together with Mr Kenny, a minister said: “Their involvement is needed to keep the show on the road.”
On his arrival at the talks, Mr Cameron said: “We have got to demonstrate we can resolve these issues. The people inside this room will be discussing and talking about them but the people outside the room – they are the people that matter. They want to see their politicians deliver.”
But last night the Democratic Unionist Party negotiator Jeffrey Donaldson warned: “I think there is still a long way to go on this one. I don’t think anyone should get too excited about the prospect of an agreement within the next 24 hours, but having said that we will do our best to close the gaps where they exist.”
He added: “We are prepared to come back here next week if it is clear that progress can be made to resolve the outstanding issues.”
The Cameron–Kenny intervention is judged necessary in an attempt to break the long-standing logjam over thorny issues including the economy, controversial Orange marches, the flying of flags and how to address legacy issues from the Troubles.
With locals making no significant progress on any of these fronts for well over a year, the widespread judgement is that Belfast politicians have proved incapable of working together.
Many locals have been pressing for intervention from London and Dublin for some time. A sense of crisis has been gradually developing since the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, the two parties which dominate the devolved administration, effectively stopped co-operating with each other on most issues.
The degeneration in relations has led to a sharp loss in public confidence in politicians, many of whom are now routinely described as “useless” and “hopeless”.
A recent Belfast Telegraph opinion poll found only 1.5 per cent described the performance of the Assembly as very good, while 56 per cent rated it bad or very bad.
A large section of the public now thinks there are too many Assembly members who are too well-paid, and some of whom have just been shown to claim surprisingly high expenses. A large number of them employ family members as their official staff. At the same time, some of the five parties which make up the Belfast administration have descended to name-calling.
London and Dublin previously put huge effort into achieving the breakthroughs which led to the paramilitary ceasefires, the establishment of power-sharing and the dramatic drop in violence in the last decade. But the approach of both in recent times has been to adopt a hands-off stance, partly in an effort to encourage republicans and unionists to show they can work together. But so far the judgement is that they have emphatically demonstrated they have yet to do so.
Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness said he was hopeful for a solution but said many of the issues were financial.Reuse content