Sinn Féin has said it will attend the reconvened Belfast Assembly on May 15th with the purpose of forming a power sharing government.
On Thursday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and 26-County Taoiseach Bertie Ahern announced, as expected, that the Assembly would be recalled after a hiatus of over three years. The Assembly was given a strict November deadline for an agreement between Sinn Féin and Ian Paisley’s hardline unionist DUP before an alternative ‘Plan B’ for the administration of the Six Counties is put in place jointly by the Dublin and London governments.
Nationalists had expressed concerns that the November 24th deadline for returning powers from London to Belfast could be drawn out indefinitely to suit the wishes of unionists.
At the weekend, however, the British government confirmed that the deadline would be defined in legislation after Easter.
Details on how the Assembly will operate, or who would act as presiding officer, have yet to be finalised.
The assembly’s primary responsibility is to elect a first and deputy first minister as soon as possible and to allocate ministerial posts under the d’Hondt formula.
If members are unable to elect an executive within six weeks, there will be a further 12-week period after a summer recess to try to form a power-sharing cabinet.
This “interim” assembly will be urged to discuss issues such as economic strategy, water rates and public administration, pending the devolution of government functions.
But if there is no agreement on power-sharing by November 24th, then the Assembly will be shut down and Assembly members’ wages finally stopped. In a sharp change of direction for the peace process, some kind of “partnership” role for Dublin in the affairs of the Six Counties would then be created instead.
The DUP has cast doubt on the possibility of reaching any agreement with Sinn Féin, but is faced with an apparent determination by the two governments to end the stalemate over the implementation of the eight-year-old Good Friday Agreement.
Bertie Ahern suggested at the weekend “there wasn’t a politician in the world” who wouldn’t accept the prospect of power in the North as offered in the proposals.
He repeated that the two governments would simply go ahead without the northern parties if they did not form a government before the deadline.
“We’ve laid out our plans. And I think all the parties should put all their energies into implementing the plans. Nobody has threatened anyone. The only thing that we’re saying is that it’s about time the politicians in Northern Ireland got on with their job,” said the Taoiseach.
“I mean they’re marginalised anyway. I mean the fact is politicians in Northern Ireland have little say in what’s going on. They’re there, they’re working, they’re paid, but they’re not in the mainstream. They’re just marginalised people, their views are not taken much into account by the NIO, the British government,” added Mr Ahern.
He went on: “We’re giving the opportunity to take full charge of the Assembly, full charge of the Executive. Some of them will be ministers. They will be running the whole shop. There’s not a politician in the world would turn down that offer.”
Speaking during a meeting of the party’s Ard Chomhairle [leadership] on Saturday, party president Gerry Adams MP said the decision to return to Stormont had been taken after careful consideration.
Mr Adams said his party’s focus in taking part in the Assembly would be the formation of a power sharing government on the basis set out in the Good Friday Agreement.
“This also has to be the focus of the Irish and British governments,” said Mr Adams.
“The DUP have to decide if they are prepared to join the rest of us in a power sharing government. That is the inescapable question which they must face. If they refuse to do so the two governments must deliver on their commitment to jointly implement all other elements of the Good Friday Agreement.
“In the coming days Sinn Féin will seek clarity and detail on the accelerated all-Ireland co-operation and action that will replace the Assembly if the DUP is not prepared to share power.”
It is expected that the joint governmental efforts will centre around the areas of enhanced North-South cooperation, the human rights and equality agenda and the British-Irish dimension.
It is being reported that meetings between Dublin and London officials on this ‘Plan B’ will be stepped up and plans firmed up after the summer if the restoration of the institutions in the North looks unlikely.
Both sets of officials have insisted that the focus is currently on ‘Plan A’ -- a return of a power-sharing Ministerial Executive and the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.
It is clear that the threat of extension of Dublin’s influence and authority over the Six Counties, which is central to Plan B, will encourage the DUP to form a local administration with Sinn Féin.
However, British Direct Ruler Peter Hain suggested unionists ahould not be too concerned about any change to the constitutional position of the Six Counties if a deal cannot be achieved.
“There’s no question of joint government,” he declared in a BBC interview. “That would be in contravention of the referendum that the people of Northern Ireland voted on when they endorsed the Good Friday Agreement.”
The first obstacle to be dealt with by the Assembly will surely be the DUP’s continuing refusal to speak directly to Sinn Féin.
A speech by DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson in New York last Wednesday night showed little evidence of willingness to make peaced.
“The question is not ‘Will the DUP work with Sinn Féin, if it operates by exclusively democratic and peaceful means?’” Robinson said. “The question is whether Sinn Féin can ever attain that status.”