Irish Republican News · September 21, 2004
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]

A deal to restore the suspended Belfast Assembly and power-sharing institutions in the North of Ireland appears to be getting closer following three days of intensive all-party negotiations in southern England and further talks in Belfast this week.

Ian Paisley’s DUP, which is still refusing to hold face-to-face talks with Sinn Féin, has come under immense pressure to end the stalemate over their demands for changes to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The party is defying efforts to agree a deal even after it has become clear that the (Provisional) IRA is willing to disarm and disband as part of an agreed process.

Inspired by these assurances, Ian Paisley said “a golden opportunity” now existed to create a peaceful future, but that he would not be “bluffed” by the IRA. In an uncharacteristically positive assessment, Dr Paisley added that “in some respects we have never been closer to solving the problems that have plagued us for decades.”

Both the nationalist SDLP and Sinn Féin have insisted that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement remains substantially unchanged, while the DUP have called for it be recast.

In a new “initiative”, the IRA is said to be ready to act on a timetable of arms decommissioning to be carried out in a more “transparent” manner, possibly with some public record of its disarming.

The hardline unionist DUP, however, is still demanding a return of majority rule in any devolved local administration -- entirely contradicting the power-sharing spirit of the unimplemented 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Unionists also want the IRA to declare their war is over and an end to all military and related activity.

Sinn Féin has refused to confirm that an IRA statement might be drafted or speculate on its contents, but there have been strong suggestions that the IRA would act in a comprehensive manner to provide the “act of completion” long demanded by the British government. In return, the British would finally act on commitments under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, as embodied in last year’s Joint Declaration.

But the DUP is demanding changes to key elements of the Agreement. Throwing a spanner in the works, the party has insisted that the decision-making of ministers in the cabinet-style Executive and cross-border bodies be held “accountable” to the Assembly, thereby subjecting all elements of the devolved government to a unionist veto.

It has also said it wants to “decouple” the combined Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in the Executive -- driving a wedge between the proposed partnership government by political leaders from both communities.

The move would ostensibly serve to insulate the DUP from “unclean” republican influence in the devolved government. The problem is that in any restored Executive, the position of First Minister will likely be taken by the DUP -- possibly Ian Paisley himself -- and the position of Deputy First Minister will likely be taken by Sinn Féin -- possibly Gerry Adams.

The DUP has this week also poured cold water on proposals by the Irish and British governments of a ministerial “code” which would cover agreed categories of ministerial decisions which would require collective approval by the Executive.

“We are not in the business of getting some temporary quick fix,” he said. “We are in the business of getting something that is stable and lasting.

“I think that is far more important to the people of Northern Ireland.”

Mr Robinson said tonight the formula for decision-making at Stormont by the two governments was inadequate.

Under the proposals, unpopular ministerial decisions could be challenged through a petition of concern to the Assembly within seven days.

Where a decision failed to secure the backing of a majority of unionists and a majority of nationalists, it would be referred back to the Executive for further consideration within seven days. The minister would then have to decide whether to alter his or her decision or proceed as originally proposed.

The party’s deputy leder Peter Robinson has claimed his party wants to resolve the increasingly confused debate.

“I think if the problem can be resolved by a process of the Assembly or a combination of the Assembly and the Executive, we’re content, but I am not convinced yet that they are at a point where they have presented us with a proposal that meets that criteria.”

In a statement yesterday, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness urged the DUP to strike a deal as quickly as possible.

He s said that the DUP need to come into the real world of negotiations, engagement and agreement.

“The DUP did not engage at Leeds Castle. In the real world of negotiations you talk to people, you engage with people, and you make agreements which others can live with.

“The DUP need to come into this world of negotiations, engagement and agreement. They must understand that they cannot simply make demands; they must understand that there will be no changes to the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement. Equality, power-sharing and the all-Ireland institutions are fundamental to the Agreement.

“On these key issues the DUP will not get their way. There will be no return to unionist rule. There will be no unionist veto. There will be no dilution of the all-Ireland structures.”

Continuing to press the matter today, he said a very strong spotlight was now shining on the DUP.

“I was interested to hear that at Leeds Castle people were telling us that Peter Robinson and Ian Paisley were singing from the same hymn sheet but they were having difficulties with some of the backwoodsmen who accompanied them to Leeds Castle.”

“So this is a test of real leadership for Ian Paisley. This is a real test of leadership for Peter Robinson,” he said.

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© 2004 Irish Republican News