Good Friday Agreement faces gravest threat

The British government has described proposals published today by Ian Paisley's DUP for a new model of devolved government to replace that contained in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement as ``very constructive''.

The scheme presents three options for government, but in the current political climate, only one is applicable.

In this scenario, Ministerial decisions would be replaced by votes by the full Assembly itself. Motions, presumably based on the recommendations of Assembly committees, would be passed if they achieve a weighted majority rule of Assembly members.

Such provisions are based on the practice of local government in the North of Ireland. Effectively turning Stormont into a Six-County council, they would allow Sinn Féin to be excluded from any decision-making process.

The document lauds the council model as a means of bypassing Sinn Féin: ``In that context democratic parties have, for many years, been able to represent their constituents within a political structure where, despite an absence of trust, decisions have been taken without the requirement to act in partnership with those associated with terrorism.''

Power would rest with the Assembly members but a voluntary coalition government could be formed if the SDLP agreed to go forward into government with unionists but without Sinn Féin.

A mandatory coalition government would only be formed including Sinn Féin if the IRA finally engaged in ``acts of completion'' including total disarmament and disbandment.

The proposals would give significantly more influence to the SDLP than its electoral mandate would currently warrant. In light of the British government's willingness to consider the plan, the SDLP's response to the DUP's suggestions could now dictate whether the Good Friday Agreement survives.

The DUP claimed its scheme was not a return to the days of rolling devolution but was a form of ``rising devolution''.

Launching the proposals at a Belfast news conference - the party put them to British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London yesterday - Mr Paisley said they had been told by all and sundry there was no alternative to the Good Friday Agreement, no Plan B and that the Agreement could not be negotiated.

But he said: ``Negotiations have now begun. Negotiations which must bring about a new Agreement based on democracy, a fair deal which is capable of getting the support of unionists, not just nationalists.''

He said the DUP would be taking its plans to the Agreement review talks which began this week and resume on Monday.

He said: ``The DUP will act as the doorkeeper for democracy within the talks process. The door to any executive cannot be unlocked until everyone enters on the same basis.

``The days of terror and violence must come to an end and come to an end for good. Sinn Féin/IRA face a choice between holding on to guns or participating in government.''

DUP Deputy Leader Peter Robinson described the requirements for Sinn Féin's entry to executive government as ``the Blair necessities'' - citing a series of statements by the British Prime Minister saying that those who used or threatened violence would be excluded from government; that there could be no fudge between democracy and terror.

Mr Robinson said of Sinn Féin: ``Those who refuse to meet the entry requirements exclude themselves, we are not excluding them.''

Britain's Direct Ruler Paul Murphy described the DUP proposals as ``very constructive'' and said they could form a basis for further discussions.

``There are some very interesting ideas in there. It could mean that devolution could be restored,'' he told BBC Radio.

``The idea of power-sharing is still implicit in these proposals. It is very different from what the DUP has said over the years.

``I think they are worth discussing, worth looking at, and worth talking about. I hope that all the parties in Northern Ireland will do that.

``Of course, if it is a basis for discussion on these issues over the next couple of weeks and months, then all well and good.''

Republicans saw the plan as an attempt to turn back the clock.

Sinn Féin Assembly Group leader Conor Murphy accused the DUP of seeking a return to ``unionist majority rule''.

The Newry and Armagh Assembly member said: ``Nationalists voted for inclusive government. Nationalists voted for the all-Ireland architecture in the Agreement.

``It should not be forgotten that the majority of people voted for the Agreement.

``The DUP proposals are a blueprint for a return to unionist majority rule.

``Nationalists know only too well what the DUP really want. They want to exclude nationalists from power. This is unacceptable.

``The DUP should not be allowed to veto the Agreement or indeed any element of it, such as the power sharing executive or the all-Ireland arrangements.''

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