DUP big winners in governments' proposals

(by Suzanne Breen, the Village)

The DUP so far appear the winners in the two governments' proposals to end the political stalemate in the North. Both nationalist and unionist sources believe there have been setbacks for Sinn Féin in several areas.

The biggest losses concern decommissioning and the freedom of ministers in any new power-sharing Executive. Sinn Féin sources fear the powers of North-South ministerial bodies could be seriously undermined.

Talks' insiders say the governments' document outlines the completion of IRA decommissioning by Christmas. The DUP still hasn't seen a text from the IRA and is insisting Tony Blair state that the IRA has clearly agreed to what is outlined and it isn't just the governments' suggestion.

The DUP demand for a visual aspect to decommissioning has been conceded. The document refers to photographic evidence of decommissioning events. Talks sources say initially the DUP would see the photographs privately but they would then be published on the day devolution returns to Stormont.

This is a major DUP victory. The secrecy surrounding previous decommissioning acts led many ordinary unionists to believe nothing had been decommissioned so publication of photographs will be a confidence-building measure.

Sinn Féin and the IRA had strongly opposed pictorial evidence saying it would be humiliating and would be used by anti-Agreement republicans to claim the Provos had surrendered.

The governments' document also suggests decommissioning be witnessed by a Protestant and Catholic cleric. This is non-contentious for both Sinn Féin and the DUP. No names of clerics have yet been proposed.

Other setbacks for nationalists regard ministerial appointments and North-South bodies. Previously, the first and deputy first ministers (likely to be Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness next time) were elected by the Assembly on a joint ticket.

It's now proposed the entire Executive be collectively approved by the Assembly. This is to spare the DUP's blushes of a Paisley-McGuinness vote. But the SDLP claims the DUP will now have a veto over all nationalist ministers and could hold everything up by refusing to allow a nationalist education or justice minister, two portfolios unionists deeply resent nationalists holding.

The DUP denies it would be childishly obstructive and says nationalist MLAs will have the same power over its ministers.

The document outlines a review of the six North-South bodies, examining their cost effectiveness. Both Sinn Féin and SDLP sources fear this will lead to the DUP capping the development of cross-Border institutions and ensuring they are kept on a tight rein by the Assembly.

Sinn Féin has sold the institutions as a stepping-stone to Irish unity and so needs the dynamic of further growth. Sources say a review of the make-up of the Stormont administration is also proposed with consideration given to reducing the 10 departments as part of a cost-cutting exercise.

In terms of the devolution of policing and justice to the Assembly, the document suggests this could occur within two years. The DUP would have wanted longer.

The governments propose beefing up the British-Irish Council which, unlike the North-South Council, lacks its own headquarters or secretariat. This is only a symbolic gesture and shouldn't be interpreted as a unionist gain.

Only Sinn Féin and the DUP have been given the document. While the governments have briefed the SDLP and Ulster Unionists, they haven't been given the document which further cements their relegation to bit players.

The SDLP says the fundamentals of the Belfast Agreement are being compromised and "the DUP must believe Christmas has come early". SDLP sources accuse Sinn Féin of "poor negotiating tactics and strategic errors" but such allegations won't harm the party.

Sinn Féin will continue discussions with both governments over the next week in an attempt to alter the proposals. The DUP is seeking clarification from Tony Blair on several areas where it says "ambiguity and apparent inconsistencies exist".

It is understood the DUP wants "every i dotted and every t crossed" and unlike David Trimble won't leave any issues hanging in the air in the event of a deal. A key meeting of its 80-strong executive will take place on Friday when it should be obvious if the DUP will support the proposals.

Talks' insiders said while the British government is willing to clarify issues to the parties, substantial changes in text are unlikely. DUP sources say one issue which remains unaddressed is its request for a massive financial peace package.

The party is demanding the British government invests a billion pounds in the North over the next 10 years. It wants £100 million to be allocated immediately which could be used to make urgent improvements to roads and the water service.

November 22, 2004

This article appears in the November 20, 2004 edition of the Village.

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