A “shadow assembly” could operate in Belfast for a “few months” while efforts are made to restore power-sharing, Bertie Ahern has said.
Renewed suggestions by the 26-County Taoiseach of a transitional forum for the North’s politicians come despite reports that plans for a shadow assembly plan has already been shelved.
Meanwhile, British officials have indicated their efforts to restore power-sharing between nationalists and unionists are reaching a climax. Observers believe that a time-limited return of the Stormont Assembly could represent one last roll of the talks dice before some form of joint authority is launched by Dublin and London.
However, it remains unclear what exactly the two governments plan to do if politicians fail to reach agreement following their return to Stormont parliamentary buildings outside Belfast.
The DUP continues to refuse direct talks with republicans and is implacably opposed to sharing power with Sinn Féin, the second largest party in the North.
Ian Paisley’s DUP has demanded an Assembly with a ‘voluntary coalition’ -- no power-sharing with Catholics and an unspecified period of “decontamination” of Sinn Féin.
Nationalists remain sceptical of any move which could create the illusion of progress without any substance. Claims that the governments intend to implement elements of the 1998 Good Friday Agreeement will be viewed in the context of their consistent failure to do so over the past eight years.
Speaking on British television yesterday, Mr Ahern claimed that while the policy of both the Dublin and London governments was full restoration of all the institutions of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the impasse over the executive should not stop the assembly from reconvening.
Mr Ahern told the BBC: “Well, obviously, if we don’t get agreement on the executive, you cannot have an executive. Bu that should not stop the assembly operating for a period of time while there is work for it to do, and that could take a few months. At the end of the day, we want to get to a position where we will have the assembly operating fully and functioning as it was designed in the Good Friday agreement, and we want to get the executive doing the same.”
“I think the difficulty for the prime minister [Tony Blair] and I, is that it’s eight years on. It is now, we’re heading quickly towards another summer.
“It’s last summer since we got the IRA’s statement, which I think that most people thought we’d never get. The arms issue was dealt with in the early autumn so we are heading quickly towards another summer.
“Politicians all over the world like to be in power and I am sure in Northern Ireland it is no different, they want to deal with the everyday issues, what’s known all over the world as the bread and butter issues - to deal with education, local government and health.”
The Taoiseach warned that if the two governments could not get the institutions functioning this year as per the Agreement, then they would have to “think again”.
“But that would be a huge tragedy and I do not want to find myself in that position,” he added.
Over the past two weeks, reports indicated that London and Dublin would adopt an “inter-governmental approach” in the event of failure to agree on a restored executive.
However, the Taoiseach claimed yesterday that all the obstacles to power-sharing had been removed and now it was just a matter of working out how to restore it.
Meanwhile, British Direct Ruler Peter Hain said today Mr Ahern was illustrating current thinking but a detailed plan had to be worked out.
He pointed out that Assembly members could not continue to be paid “for jobs they refuse to do”.
Elected members of the former Stormont Assembly continue to receive a salary despite the collapse of the body following the still-controversial spy scandal of October 2002.
Mr Hain said that when a detailed plan was completed by the Dublin and London governments next month it would present northern politicians with “a very clear, very stark and for some perhaps very hard choice”.
Despite some similarity between the reported proposals and aspects of DUP policy, that party’s MEP, Jim Allister, complained that Bertie Ahern had “pontificated on the future internal governance of part of the United Kingdom”.
He called on Peter Hain to remind “these foreign meddlers” that the governance of the Six Counties was “solely the concern of the British government and the local parties”.
DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said that any move towards a model of joint authority would be “completely unrealistic”.
“It is time Dublin stopped being the bully-boy and worked with the rest of us,” he said.
Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness called for a “determined effort” to bring back power-sharing and claimed the DUP was isolated.
He said: “It is quite clear from all the contributions to this debate that the DUP are now very isolated on many matters. You also have the American president saying ‘get on with it and get the institutions up’ and you have the British prime minister agreeing with the Taoiseach.”
“In our discussions with the two governments we have made it crystal clear that progress had to be made in the immediate period.
“That means the lifting of suspension and a determined effort to establish a fully functioning executive. It also means the end of the failed approach of pandering to the DUP...
“It is my view that we can collectively deliver a fully- functioning assembly and executive. But for this to happen the governments need to stand firmly behind the Good Friday Agreement.
“I look forward to seeing the proposals being put together by the two governments. These plans will be judged on whether or not they will deliver the institutions people voted for eight years ago.”
The governments are due to publish their proposals in three weeks’ time.