30 December 2005

Hain issues devolution deadline to Ulster parties

Guardian

·Sinn Féin and DUP told to restore power sharing
· Elections for Stormont in 2007 may be cancelled


Angelique Chrisafis, Ireland correspondent
Friday December 30, 2005
The Guardian

The Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Hain, threatened yesterday to cancel the next Stormont elections and, in effect, pull the plug on devolution if Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist party do not form a power-sharing government in the next year.

Mr Hain's vow, which would prolong direct, quasi-colonial rule indefinitely, came after more than three years of anger and frustration at the intransigence of local politicians since the assembly was suspended.

Scrapping the elections, due in May 2007, would effectively end devolution as a viable concept. Mr Hain would not be drawn on what the government's alternative strategy was. "I'm not getting into plan B because I think plan B is not an attractive proposition for anybody," he said.

In an interview with the Guardian at Hillsborough Castle, where he spent Christmas, he also threatened to cut the £41,000 salaries of the 108 assembly members if they did not hammer out a way of governing together.

Northern Ireland has been in political limbo since Stormont was suspended in October 2003 after allegations of an IRA spy ring, which resurfaced this month after charges against three republicans were dropped and the head of Sinn Féin's Stormont offices outed himself as a British agent. The assembly members, who were elected in November 2003, have never taken up their seats, with the two biggest parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP, unable to agree about even talking together.

Mr Hain said voters would not accept another "charade" election to an empty chamber that was never going to sit.

"It's not me acting as an old colonial governor. I'm actually saying: 'I want you to run your own affairs, I want to give away power.' I think the voters want that as well," he said.

The public was showing "a deep-seated alienation bordering on minor contempt for the inability of Northern Ireland's politicians to get their act together," he added. He said he had met all Northern Ireland's political leaders in the past 10 days, and neither Ian Paisley, the DUP's leader or Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin leader had challenged his view. "I am talking straight rather than tough but if people want to interpret it as tough that's a matter for them," he said.

He said cancelling an election was a "pretty big decision" which would have to be made by December. Mr Hain has faced growing criticism over his stewardship of Northern Ireland, with his judgement called into question most recently by all parties over the "on the run" legislation which would allow fugitive republicans and members of the security services accused of crimes during the Troubles to escape prison without having to appear in court. Sinn Féin, the only party to initially support the bill, last week did a U-turn and said it would not support it.

Yesterday Mr Hain conceded changes would be made. "There's no doubt that the bill will need major surgery," he said adding that there were "legitimate arguments" against some details. He hinted that he was looking again at whether defendants would be forced to appear in front of special tribunals, before being freed on licence.

"I am very reluctant to just kill the bill as Sinn Féin are now demanding, and other parties in Northern Ireland [previously] demanded. I think we can find a way forward in which there will be, if not total consensus, then much broader consensus," he said.

Mr Hain refused to open up intelligence files to clear the air after the Stormont affair or to give a full public explanation of who was spying on whom and why.

"There were lots of James Bond type stories around it," he said, "which gets everybody excited, but there isn't really anything more to say from the government's point of view unless people want to dwell on the past forever."

He denied there were any rogue elements at work in the security services and said the police had been fully reformed.

Despite the fact that Sinn Féin's refusal to endorse the police service has been strengthened by the affair, he said it must "buy into policing" before an assembly could sit again. Legislation setting out a framework for handing power over policing to Stormont would go before parliament in February and Sinn Féin must call a special party conference to debate it. Before then, the government's ceasefire watchdog, the Independent Monitoring Commission, will rule on whether the IRA has kept its promise, made in July, to end all violence. Mr Hain said he would meet the parties in February to discuss their responses but all-party talks would not take place for some months.


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