British Direct Ruler Peter Hain has signed the restoration order to devolve governmental powers from London to Belfast, requiring the Belfast Assembly to meet tomorrow [Monday] to nominate a new locally elected administration of unionists and nationalists.
But with Ian Paisley’s DUP having declared that they will not form a devolved government until an agreed date in May, Hain said the parties will have to agree a new plan on their own or face dissolution of the Assembly -- with the termination of their salaries -- and the continuation of direct British rule.
The DUP’s resolution stated that in light of recent progress the party would take part in a Six-County Executive in May with the condition that “no one, including the [British] government, goes back on any of the advances and commitments made”.
The resolution -- more conciliatory than traditional Paisleyite statements and avoiding explicit mention of a “testing period” -- was hailed as a “breakthrough” by Peter Hain.
“This is the first time the DUP has said they will share power with Sinn Féin,” Mr Hain declared.
“We are in entirely new territory. The St Andrews process has brought us to a point which some people said at the turn of the year was inconceivable.
“However at this point we have set out the course that we are going to take. If the parties are not going to do it our way through this route, then they have to do it their way.
However, the parties are going to have to come forward with consensus and tell us what they want to do.”
It is being suggested that the parties will meet tomorrow in the Programme for Government committee room to discuss the DUP’s appeal for more time.
While agreement is possible, there is scepticism among nationalists that any later deadline will not again be circumvented by the DUP, who have shown a clear and determined preference to delay the political process as long as possible, and at least until the anticipated advent of British Chancellor Gordon Brown to the position Prime Minister.
There is also media speculation that, in order to secure an agreement, the DUP will likely end its refusal to hold direct talks with Sinn Féin and may yet make a definitive commitment to share power with republicans.
But as well as Sinn Féin -- who strongly wished to use their position in government in the North as a springboard for the May election in the 26 Counties -- Reg Empey’s Ulster Unionist Party and Mark Durkan’s SDLP have also rejected any further delay.
Negotiations are expected to continue until late Monday. If agreement is reached, legislation will be rushed through the British parliament to suspend the process until the new agreed date.