Times Online

New bid to break Stormont deadlock

Liam Clarke
26 September 2004

THE British and Irish governments are drawing up a paper designed to end the impasse in Northern Ireland. They intend to put it to local parties on a take-it-or-leave-it basis and may reconvene the assembly to examine the document.
The broad contents are likely to be floated to the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein, the two main parties, later this week. The options being considered are to restore the assembly, while implementing the British/Irish compromise, or to collapse the institutions.

Some problems would be hived off to an “efficiency commission” that would keep the operation and institutions of the assembly under review and have the power to recommend changes.

The SDLP is organising a strong rearguard action in defence of the detailed provisions of the Good Friday agreement. Yesterday the party’s leadership convened a meeting of elected representatives at which they briefed them on likely developments. The SDLP is determined to resist changes in the institutional architecture of the agreement, which they regard as essential to prevent unionist domination.

Mark Durkan, the party leader, painted a bleak picture of “a DUP world”, pointing out that nationalists were excluded from positions of power in DUP-run councils such as Ballymena and Castlereagh.

The main areas to be addressed by the government paper are:

The powers of ministers. At present ministers have a wide degree of autonomy in their departments and can make decisions that do not have to be approved by the assembly. The governments may propose a system of “petitions of concern” by which some decisions would be referred to the assembly as a whole. The SDLP regards this as majority rule.

The functions of first and deputy first ministers. Under current rules, these posts are elected jointly from the two largest nationalist and unionist parties. Currently, the DUP would hold the post of first minister and Sinn Fein the deputy position. The DUP wants them to be elected separately and the power of the department reduced. The SDLP sees this as a weakening of power sharing.

Cross-border bodies. The DUP wants their decisions to be subjected to an assembly commission.

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