A plan for a temporary administration apoointed by London has been proposed by the nationalist SDLP as a stop-gap measure while the political process in the North remains deadlocked.
Under the plan, the Belfast Assembly at Stormont would return but without ministers drawn from the North’s political parties. Their place would be taken by unelected appointees of the British government, subject to Assembly approval.
Two of the appointees would take on the roles of co-chairmen - and carry out the duties of a First and Deputy First Minister.
SDLP leader Mark Durkan put the scheme to Irish and British officials at the latest session of the review talks being held by the Governments.
Mr Durkan said: “Our proposals mean the two governments appointing civil administrators to run departments here until we can get Northern Ireland ministers back.
“They mean ending suspension. They mean ending direct rule and sending direct rule ministers back to Westminster where they belong. They mean getting the north-south agenda up and running again.”
He said the suspension of the devolved administration had gone on for 18 months and the two crux issues of ending paramilitarism and getting unionist politicians to work the Good Friday Agreement remained.
The reality was that despite five months of talks a solution was no nearer.
“If we don’t do something now there is every reason to fear this stalemate will drag on until after next year`s Westminster elections,” said Mr Durkan.
The SDLP proposals - to be fully revealed to public scrutiny tomorrow - were not about excluding anybody or leaving any party behind, he said.
“They are not about departing from the Agreement in any way. They are about getting as much of the Agreement now as we can - and still working to get all of it,” he added.
Republicans derided the plan, and Sinn Féin was also unimpressed.
Assembly member Bairbre de Brun, Health Minister prior to the suspension of the Assembly, said the plan was “clearly outside the terms of the Agreement”.
It would “provide succour for the rejectionists who were seeking to renegotiate,” she said.
Ms de Brun added: “In particular, the plan to allow the British Secretary of State to hand pick ministers runs entirely against any democratic norm and runs entirely against the expressed wishes of the electorate.”
The British and Irish ministers made no comment on the SDLP proposals following a round of talks with parties -- the Ulster Unionists again boycotted the discussions.
The review meeting was the last formal session before the European elections.
The ministers said in a statement they looked forward to continuing contact with the parties during May and “a period of intensive political dialogue after the European elections”.
FRESH BID TO RELAUNCH PROCESS
The SDLP proposals comne after the Irish and British Prime Ministers launched a fresh attempt to restore the political process in Northern Ireland.
An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British PM Tony Blair issued a joint statement after holding talks in Dublin at the weekend stressing the need to “create the conditions for the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland on a stable and durable basis”.
The two leaders said that issues surrounding “paramilitarism and associated criminality” must be addressed and said it was “long past time to deal with them once and for all”.
The Joint statement said that reports from the International Monitoring Commission (IMC) and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) would continue to play “a key part in assessing the progress being made, and on what remains to be done” across the range of their respective remits.
Speaking in Dublin, Mr Ahern said that after holding talks with the parties he believed the suspended Six-County institutions would be restored by October.
“We are determined to achieve a basis for the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland as soon as possible,” he said.
Mr Ahern said both he and Mr Blair had developed a road map for the way ahead and said he honestly believed that both the Assembly and Executive could be resurrected.
“If we are not in that position by autumn it would be a very serious position,” he said.
Mr Blair said the problem was not just about persuading paramilitaries to give up their arms. “It is about more than simply decommissioning. It is about whether people can be sure there is a genuine cessation of all types of violence. It is not about decommissioning a certain amount of weaponry. It is more profound than that.”
He added that devolved government could not be allowed to fail again. “Everybody recognises that the next time we get this situation of institutions up and running that has to be it. People do not want another six months then it collapses again.”
Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, welcomed the meeting between the premiers and applauded “their renewed focus on the peace process”.
He confirmed that Sinn Féin had taken part in in-depth discussions with the Government and with officials.
In a reference to last month’s report on paramilitary activity by the Independent Monitoring Commission which led to Sinn Féin suffering a financial penalty for alleged IRA activity, Mr McGuinness added: “We left the two governments in no doubt about the difficulties that recent developments have created, nor should we underestimate the deep difficulties facing us.”
He added: “Despite these difficulties I am firmly of the view that, with political will, good faith and determination on all sides, early progress can be made.”
However, reports that the British government is planning to prevent Sinn Féin in the North from raising funds outside British jurisdiction has angered the party.
Earlier this month the British government announced that it was withholding #120,000 in grants to Sinn Féin after the IMC sanctions body accused the IRA of involvement in violence and criminality.
Last night a Sinn Féin spokesman said of yesterday’s reports: “If this speculation is correct it is another example of the lengths the British system will go to in response to the growing support for Sinn Féin across this island.
“Irish people who have been forced to leave Ireland as a direct consequence of British policies in Ireland have an absolute right to contribute to the process of democratic change and to support those who have been at the heart of the peace process on this island.”