Elections to the Belfast Assembly are to go ahead on March 7 despite the continuing failure of Ian Paisley’s DUP to agree a power-sharing deal.
After talks in London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and 26-County Taoiseach Bertie Ahern confirmed the election amid continuing uncertainty over the future of the political process.
“The assembly election, due to be held on March 7, is an integral part of the process and timetable agreed at St Andrews,” said Blair.
“It is being held for the explicit purposes of endorsing the St Andrews Agreement and of electing the assembly that will form a power-sharing executive on March 26 in accordance with that agreement and timeframe.”
The DUP has not said if it will agree to share power with Sinn Fein following the election. The St Andrews agreement indicates a deadline of March 26 for the return of power-sharing in the North after a five year hiatus.
Mr Blair and Mr Ahern said they were proceeding with the poll on the basis that all parties understood the assembly would be dissolved if the DUP still refuses to share power.
Blair said he was “convinced” from his talks with Ian Paisley that the DUP was ready to share power. However, there was again a warning by the two premiers that so-called “plan B” partnership arrangements could be put into place if there is no return of devolved government.
But Blair and Ahern said the latest report from the Independent Monitoring Commission provided evidence that the North of Ireland had “moved on”.
The IMC, a government-mandated ceasefire-monitoring body, said this week Sinn Fein’s decision on policing was a “major development”.
Introducing the report in Belfast, former London ‘anti-terrorist’ squad head John Grieve said: “I never thought I would hear myself say this but the directions from the Provisional IRA leadership to membership have remained clear and consistent and terrorism and violence have been abandoned.”
Under the rules of the Assembly, Ministerial positions in the power-sharing Executive are divided among the parties according to their strength in the Assembly. The largest unionist party and the largest nationalist party jointly fill the positions of First Minister and Deputy First Minister. A cross-community majority of both unionists and nationalists is required to pass any controversial motions in the Assembly.
It is understood the two governments will be hoping to avoid a repeat of the last election, which saw Ian Paisley’s DUP and Sinn Fein elect a majority of unionist and nationalist Assembly members respectively, leading to the present stalemate.
Following the resignation of two Sinn Fein Assembly members this month, seats in the Assembly are currently divided between DUP (32), Ulster Unionists (24), Sinn Fein (21), SDLP (18), Alliance (5), Independent Republican (2), Independent Nationalist (1), Independent Unionist (2).
In addition to the ‘Concerned Republican’ group, Republican Sinn Fein is said to be separately considering fielding Republican prisoner candidates on an abstentionist basis in the March assembly elections. A decision will be made in the coming days.
Republican Sinn Fein Vice-President Des Dalton said: “It is our duty to provide leadership to that section of the Irish people who will never accept British police, British Courts, British law or British rule in Ireland. By fielding candidates on an unequivocal Irish Republican platform we would offer people a clear alternative to the treachery and betrayal of the Provisionals.”