But with the largest party, the DUP, absent from the table, and demanding its 64 pages of demands be met to create an “enabling atmosphere” before it will consider power-sharing with Sinn Fein, the attempt was more appearance than substance.
It did emerge, however, that the British government is intending to publish proposals paving the way for the devolution of powers over policing and the courts to Belfast at the beginning of next year, dependent on the restoration of the power-sharing executive.
Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness said the failure of the DUP to engage with the two governments betrayed those who elected them and was “hardly an example of the confident brand of unionism promised at the last election.
“Ian Paisley told the two governments last year that the only obstacle to sharing power was IRA weapons,” McGuinness said. “That issue has been decisively addressed. The challenge is now for Ian Paisley – is he going to keep his word?”
The DUP is to hold talks with the Irish government this Friday in Dublin, although party sources said this would be more along the lines of dismissing hopes of an early return to devolution than real negotiations.
Party leader Ian Paisley has warned there was “only one more chance” to get devolved government right. Speaking to the AGM of his constituency party in Ballymena, Paisley said there was no possibility of progress before unionists got “a fair deal.”
The IRA, he said, had been determined “at all costs” to avoid a decommissioning process that was transparent and would convince unionists. That failure meant they would have to persuade unionists another way, he said.
“If they cannot do that they have no place in the future of our country,” Paisley told the meeting in the presence of the PSNI Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Orde.
“As Ulstermen and women, whose loyal blood courses through our veins, we can face any enemy”, said Paisley. “The struggle ahead will not be easy but we are determined to finish the job we started.
“Last year I told you that IRA/Sinn Fein would need to come in sackcloth and ashes, on bended knee to the unionist people to seek our forgiveness,” he said, adding that they had failed to do so and had to pay the price.
“Unionists do not trust Sinn Fein/IRA. They have no confidence that the days of murder and bloodshed are over and that the IRA is off their backs forever. As far as I am concerned, there can be no compromise in fundamental requirements,” said Paisley.
DUP MP Nigel Dodds warned that “time was running out” for the British prime minister to “secure his legacy” on Northern Ireland. The chances of a historic and lasting achievement will be greatly diminished, he said, if Blair continued to alienate unionists.
“To date, this government has shown little interest in seriously addressing unionist lack of confidence,” he said. Instead, it had “done much to contribute to unionist feelings of anger and frustration.”
“If Mr. Blair wishes to see the return of devolution, while he is still resident in Downing Street, then he will have to reach out to unionists. The continued pursuit of policies that sap unionist morale will result in Northern Ireland being added to the list on the desk of the next prime minister,” said Dodds.
Meanwhile, the SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, urged the Irish and British governments to abandon their “concession of the week” approach to the DUP and Sinn Fein. In a hard-hitting attack on both parties, Durkan said both needed to get back to consensus building.
The Ulster Unionists are due to meet the two governments on November 24th and party leader, Sir Reg Empey said they would be “expressing anger at the endless stream of concessions to republicans”.
In a typically trenchant speech, the SDLP deputy leader, Alasdair McDonnell, told his party conference it had resisted the electoral depredations of Sinn Fein which had “stolen and abused” the language of Irish unity.