DUP leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams could hold face-to-face talks as early as tomorrow as the St Andrews proposals are worked through by the two party leaderships.
Prospective first minister Dr Paisley and Mr Adams are due to lead senior delegations to a meeting of the shadow Assembly’s Programme for Government committee tomorrow. The meeting will discuss priorities for the power-sharing Executive which the governments have said should be fully restored by March 2007.
If the two parties officially exchange words, it would be the first time the DUP and Sinn Féin have engaged in direct dialogue.
It was once considered inconceivable that extreme unionist hardliner Ian Paisley and former IRA chief Martin McGuinness could share the positions of First and Deputy First Minister. But under the St Andrews plan, the two will take their positions as joint heads of a multi-party coalition largely based on the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
If realised, the new compromise will see a number of new features in the three strands of the new political dispensation. Most importantly, the new “Ministerial code” and “Ministerial accountability”, which woill require decisions of individual ministers considered “significant or controversial” or opposed by a block of thirty Assembly members, to be subjected to the approval of the full Ministerial Executive.
There would be also arrangements to ensure that any three Ministers could require any decision to be taken in the Executive to be made on a cross-community basis.
Commentators believe this concession to the DUP will quickly lead to political deadlock, anbd potentially provide Paisley’s party with a mechanism to stymie the new political institutions. However, the Northern Ireland (2000) Act, introduced by Peter Mandelson to allow London suspend the Belfast Assembly and override the Good Friday Agreement, is set to be scrapped.
Direct talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin could be critical, as the significance of a number of points in the proposals published last week remain to be worked out, while other issues remain on the back-burner.
These include plans to hold a referendum in one or both parts of Ireland to legitimise the Agreement, as well as a fresh election to elect a new Belfast Assembly.
There are also important questions over the manner and timing of Sinn Féin’s potentially historic and transforming decision to support the PSNI police. No clarity was delivered either on the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast, and no mention of further reforms to the PSNI, which remains associated with sectarianism and discrimination in the eyes of Catholics.
There was also some unionist suggestions that the pledge of office, to be taken by all Ministers in the new Executive, would be changed to ensure Martin McGuinness swears a controversial oath to explicity support the [British] rule of law.
No mention was made in the Agreement regarding the status of republicans ‘on the run’ from pending prosecutions. However, the British government did pledge to reduce barriers to employment for former prisoners. A new Irish Language Act and measures on human rights and equality will also be welcomed by nationalists.
The DUP said its delegation at tomorrows engagement of the programme for government committee would comprise Dr Paisley, deputy leader Peter Robinson and North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds. Mr Adams is expected to be joined by prospective Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and one other senior party member.
The committee met throughout the summer and while early meetings were seen as farcical, some indirect engagement took place in the late summer. The governments hope tomorrow will mark the beginning of high-level discussions between Mr Paisley and Mr Adams.
Under the governments’ plan, Sinn Féin and the DUP must say by November 10th whether they accept the proposals. Both parties have said have embarked on a consultation process with their politicians, party members and supporters.
Mr Robinson indicated that the DUP continued to be generally comfortable with the Scottish proposals and denied criticism by the Ulster Unionist Party that the St Andrews document was the Good Friday Agreement “for slow learners”.
“This agreement is immeasurably better than the lousy deal negotiated by the UUP in 1998,” Robinson declared.
Mr Adams told a republican rally in Belfast that republicans must be prepared for DUP politicians attempting to sell the agreement as a victory for the DUP. Republicans must be “more mature” than that.
“Bringing rejectionist unionism into the peace process would be an enormous achievement,” he said. “Our endeavour is to make peace with Ian Paisley and those he represents because we are avowedly anti-sectarian.”
Mr Adams said he would soon brief Sinn Féin’s leadership on the plan, and said dissent would be tolerated.
“Let me remind everyone here that negotiations have been an integral part of our struggle, of your struggle for some time,” he told supporters on Saturday night.
“What we achieve we achieve together as we move forward in a united and cohesive way.
“That does not mean that we cannot disagree with each other. Of course we can and we should when appropriate and be secure in our right to dissent.”
Acknowledging that the talks produced proposals and not an agreement, the 26-County Prime Minister, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. said all of the North’s parties “had been through all of the elements of the agreement” and had sight of all of “the minute details. We have made all of the amendments that we could to satisfy as many as we possibly could”, he told Irish television.
He said he hoped that Sinn Féin and the DUP would respond positively. “They have to go through their own processes. This is a big decision. They have to come back to us and respond to us in a couple of weeks. Hopefully, there won’t be too many wrinkles in all of that,” he said.
The DUP had to show during the three days of talks that it was prepared to share power with Sinn Féin, he said.
“The answer to that is ‘Yes’. They have made that clear if all of this happens, as is listed out and as put forward in this, they will go into a powersharing executive.”
Sinn Féin, meanwhile, had faced questions about whether it would join the Northern Ireland Policing Board, and support the Police Service of Northern Ireland. “The answer to that, again, is yes, but again the process has to roll in the weeks ahead on that particular issue.
“We won’t have to wait long to see if that is a reality because effectively when the first minister and deputy first minister are nominated on the 24th then the die is cast. We will not be waiting long to see if the die is cast.” But he was more than hopeful that all parties would agree.
“We have an understanding that they will. That will be truly, I think, be a historic day.”