Irish Examiner

01/02/2004 - 4:11:05 PM

Unionist blueprint would allow Sinn Féin a say

Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists have drafted secret proposals that could let Sinn Féin join new power-sharing arrangements in Northern Ireland before the IRA disbands, it emerged today.

Although the DUP is committed to stopping republicans wielding real influence until the Provisionals are stood down, it has produced a blueprint which would see all parties working in a fresh form of devolution.

With a major review of the Good Friday Agreement beginning this week, the party will put its ideas to British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Downing Street on Thursday before unveiling them in Belfast the next day.

Central to the proposals is a recommendation that power should rest with the 108-member Stormont Assembly as a whole rather than the 12 ministers who governed before the power-sharing regime collapsed nearly 18 months ago.

A DUP source said: “There are political realities in Northern Ireland we may not like but we have to respect.

“Were power to be devolved to the Assembly then obviously Sinn Féin is one of a number of parties in that Assembly.”

This would see Gerry Adams’ party having a say on how to run Northern Ireland, based on a weighted majority.

It is understood one idea would see the Assembly decide that power should be exercised through the departmental committee structures.

But the proposals would also stop Sinn Féin from operating key ministerial portfolios like the Education and Health briefs it ran before devolution was suspended in October 2002 amid claims of an IRA spy-plot inside the government.

The party’s strategy will be studied closely during the review which starts on Tuesday.

London and Dublin face a huge task in sorting out the political mess which the Northern Ireland peace process was plunged into following last November’s Assembly elections.

With the DUP and Sinn Féin eclipsing the more moderate Ulster Unionists and the SDLP at the ballot box all hopes of a quick return to power-sharing looked doomed.

The two governments insist the 1998 Agreement is not up for renegotiation and are hoping that problems can be ironed out swiftly.

But the likelihood is that the talks will drag on to Easter at least as all sides attempt to hammer out concessions.

The DUP will be hoping to secure big changes to the Good Friday accord, including its demand that Assembly numbers should be cut back.

Yet it still wants to see authority rest with this very body as a whole rather than in the hands of a few.

“We are looking at giving power back to the Assembly as a whole,” a party strategist said.

“We aim to put proposals forward that are reasonable, but we are not moving from our bottom line that there can be no armed group in government.”

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