20 January 2006

Party wants model government vote


By Mark Devenport
BBC NI political editor

The Ulster Unionist Party has suggested to the government the rules of the Stormont Assembly should be changed to enable members to vote for their preferred temporary alternative models of government.

Senior party sources say this would require fresh legislation which should include a so-called "sunset clause" to ensure a temporary system would end in May 2007, when the next assembly elections are due to take place.

It is understood the party's preferred Plan B would give assembly members the right to scrutinise laws related to Northern Ireland and also give them financial powers related to the budget of Northern Ireland departments.

UUP sources say that if a reconvened assembly could not form a full power-sharing executive, then it should have the opportunity to vote on their proposals or the ideas of any of the other parties.

The Ulster Unionists are not the only party to have suggested alternative arrangements for refloating the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The SDLP has proposed appointing unelected "civic administrators" who could run local government departments instead of direct rule ministers.

The DUP is due to hand Tony Blair a 16-page document next Tuesday with its latest idea.

"Facing Reality" is understood to suggest a two stage process in which the assembly could be brought back with lesser powers; full devolution could follow once the parties were confident that all sides were committed to peaceful politics.

Sinn Fein has consistently argued that such "halfway house" ideas were not consistent with the Good Friday Agreement.

However, a senior UUP source argued that it was dangerous to let the current vacuum continue. The source said it was "humiliating and embarrassing" for Northern Ireland politicians to continue to be kept by the taxpayer, whilst a talking shop assembly was not an option.

Modular devolution

The source said the current process had "no focus, no deadline and no reason to take risks" and local politicians were merely spectators as the economic reality changed around them.

Although the UUP acknowledges that other parties may object to their ideas, the party source said the assembly should be given a role because "trust will only be built when you work together, you can't build trust at long range".

The UUP call their idea "modular devolution".

Apart from scrutinising laws and budgets, they envisage a role for assembly members in the meetings of north-south and east-west institutions.

The UUP believe that if the idea is given a fair wind, Westminster could amend the current Stormont rules by the summer, or by September at the very latest.

The inclusion of a "sunset clause" is designed to reassure nationalists who will suspect that unionists want to set up an alternative form of government, then never allow the old power-sharing executive to be restored.

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