Legislation lifts agreement deadline

Proposed legislation published in London today has confirmed the British government will not require the Belfast Assembly to nominate the First and Deputy First Ministers by the previously declared deadline of November 24.

Instead, two main political parties, the DUP’s Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin will name their selections for the posts -- understood to be Mr Paisley himself and Sinn Féin chief negotiator Martin McGuinness -- by the end of next week.

The DUP had refused to participate in the nomination and swearing-in of the joint heads of the local power-sharing administration unless Sinn Féin declared its support for the police. The published legislation will allow for negotiations to continue beyond the end of next week, after which the Dublin and London governments had threatened to abandon the process entirely.

Accoding to the revised schedule, a ‘new’ shadow assembly will convene in Stormont on November 24 and will hold gatherings both before and after Christmas. This assembly will be formally dissolved on January 30 before elections on March 7 in preparation for the full devolution of powers from London to Belfast on March 26.

The “Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Bill” also detailed the wording of a controversial ministerial pledge to be taken on March 26, by which time the two governmentss expect a special Sinn Féin conference will have approved the pledge.

It would require all Ministers to uphold the rule of law based on the principles of fairness, impartiality and democratic accountability, including support for policing and the courts as set out in paragraph six of the St Andrews proposals.

This paragraph requires their full support for the PSNI police and the justice system and their active encouragement of full co-operation with the PSNI. It also demands active support for all other justice and policing institutions, including the North’s Policing Board.

Among the other clauses in the Bill are proposals to:

* Require the Belfast Assembly to report to the British government before March 27 2008 on what preparations it intends to make for the transfer of policing and justice powers to the power-sharing Executive;

* Make Assembly members who designate themselves at the first sitting as unionists, nationalists or other remain under those labels for the lifetime of that Assembly;

* Enable 30 Assembly members to petition the Speaker to refer back to the Executive a decision taken by a devolved minister or junior minister which they believe is “of public importance”;

* Change the date for the ban on academic selection from November 25 to March 28.

* Allow the Policing Board to reconstitute District Policing Partnerships, work with the PSNI to advise on local policing needs, in a bid to ensure they properly reflect the political make-up of local councils. This last clause is understood to allow for Sinn Féin councillors to join the DPPs which they have previously refused to join.

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams returned from London this morning after what the party described as 48 hours of “intense and detailed discussions” with the British government.

“We are satisfied that in the discussions over the last 48 hours that we have kept the British government to the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement,” said Mr Adams.

“There has been progress and the process is moving in the right direction, even if it is inching forward. The reality is that a lot of this could happen much more quickly if the necessary political will was shown on all sides. That is what we are pushing for.

“A series of meetings of the Programme for Government Committee are due to begin next week and the Assembly is due to be convened on November 24th where parties entitled to do so will put forward their nominees.

“Sinn Féin’s focus is on restoring the power-sharing and all-Ireland political institutions so that they can deal with the issues that are impacting adversely on people in their daily lives. I believe we are closer to achieving that this morning than yesterday morning.

“However there remain outstanding issues which must be dealt with by the British government and the DUP.”

Commenting on the clause on policing which is in the Ministerial pledge Mr. Adams said:

“From a broadly nationalist and republican perspective there will be a focus on the policing clause in the Ministerial code and the wording put forward by the British in legislation as a concession to the DUP.

“I would ask nationalists and republicans who are obviously concerned at this issue to judge all of this in the round.

“Any pledge for Ministerial position only applies when people become Ministers. That does not arise until March 26th of next year. This provides time for the work which is still ongoing, around the issue of the timetable for the transfer of policing from Westminster and the departmental model, to conclude. And of course any decision Sinn Féin takes on this issue will be a matter for this party.”

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© 2006 Irish Republican News