Page last updated at 23:27 GMT, Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Unionists 'should close devolution vacuum' - Woodward

Shaun Woodward
Shaun Woodward made a direct appeal to unionists

Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward has appealed to unionists to agree to the rapid devolution of policing and justice powers.

After meeting the Irish foreign minister in Dublin, he said the lack of agreement had created a "vacuum".

Earlier, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said discussions between his party and the DUP were at a "sensitive and serious stage".

He called the talks "hugely important" but would not comment on details.

Mr Woodward made a direct appeal to unionists after his meeting with Micheal Martin.

He said: "It's a very important time for all unionists to realise that now is the time to complete devolution.

"There is an urgency which is why this needs to be addressed in these coming days and weeks."

Mr Woodward said dissident republicans who attacked a police officer last week were exploiting the "vacuum" in the process.

"Very clearly what happened to the police officer cannot be allowed to continue and I think we all have to pay attention to the vacuum which inevitably exists while these people still disagree about this work.

"We have to close that vacuum and the best way to do that is to do all we can to get the parties to reach agreement."

Mr Martin said he believed that "80 to 85%" of issues had been resolved and was optimistic that the parties would reach agreement soon.

Late on Tuesday afternoon, the leaders of the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP, Alliance and Progressive Unionists were called to Stormont Castle by the secretary of state amid speculation that progress may be imminent.

BBC NI political editor Mark Devenport said the "mood music seemed to indicate there was something afoot".

'Under duress'

The UUP leader Sir Reg Empey described his discussion with Mr Woodward on Tuesday afternoon as "useful" but said his party would have to see the shape of a deal on policing and justice before committing to supporting it.

He added that he was very concerned that any agreement could appear that it has been negotiated by the DUP under duress.

Stormont Castle
The main party leaders have been at Stormont Castle for talks

The intensified talks have been taking place as Arlene Foster spent her first day in office after taking over as acting first minister.

She is standing in for Peter Robinson, who has stood side for six weeks in order to clear his name over an allegation surrounding his wife Iris's personal and financial conduct.

She obtained £50,000 from two developers to help her teenage lover begin a cafe business. She kept £5,000 of the money for herself.

When Mr Robinson found out about the payments, he did not tell the proper authorities, despite being obliged by the ministerial code to act in the public interest at all times.

Confidence

Sinn Fein and the DUP have been at loggerheads for months over transfer of justice and policing powers from London to Belfast.

Sinn Fein has warned that progress needs to be made quickly or the power-sharing government could collapse.

DUP MP Gregory Campbell said on Tuesday that the community still did not have enough confidence to devolve the powers to Stormont.

"We have to work until it is and when it is and we can verify that, we then proceed - but not until then," he said.

"It doesn't matter how many first ministers come and go, it doesn't matter how many scandals there are or aren't, that remains the issue."

The British and Irish governments see the transfer of policing and justice as the last piece of the devolution jigsaw.



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