24 January 2006

UUP: Assembly must have financial and legislative role

Irish Examiner

24/01/2006 - 1:31:28 PM

The British government was today urged to give Northern Ireland Assembly members a financial and legislative role under direct rule.

As Democratic Unionist leader the Rev Ian Paisley prepared to hand British Prime Minister Tony Blair his party’s proposals for phased devolution later today, the rival Ulster Unionists formally launched their plans for the Stormont Assembly to sit while Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain and his ministerial team administer government departments.

The UUP’s plans also contained a sunset clause which would see the Assembly operate until April 2007 when it is due to dissolve for fresh elections.

UUP leader Sir Reg Empey said: “The Ulster Unionist Party is not interested in the Assembly resuming as a talking shop – the favoured route of some parties.

“However, we cannot underestimate the damage republicans have done to the ability of the pro-Union community to tolerate an all-inclusive executive. It is immense and deep seated.

“The current stream of concessions to republicans is re-enforcing this view.

“This fact has led us to consider what steps the British government could now take to break the deadlock, see the ending of suspension and provide the public and the taxpayer with a proper service and value for money for a time limited period that falls short of full-blown devolution.”

The UUP’s paper advocated giving the Assembly a meaningful statutory role in the governance of Northern Ireland, with the North's 108 MLAs allowed to exercise legislative and financial powers.

However Mr Hain and his ministers would continue to administer the 11 devolved ministries.

The UUP compared this model to the separation of powers in the United States where there is a distinction between the President, his cabinet and the American Congress.

The party insisted Northern Ireland Office ministers would continue to be answerable to Parliament, but instead of seeking legislation and departmental budgets from Westminster, would have to send their proposals to the Assembly.

With the Northern Ireland Assembly due to be re-elected in May 2007, and with legislation be needed to provide for the modifications referred to above, the UUP’s proposed sunset clause would set a date in April 2007 for parties to decide if full blown devolution was possible.

Sir Reg, a former Stormont economy Minister, said: “Republicans can harp on about full implementation but, following their actions, this cannot happen in the immediate future until efforts are made to restore sufficient levels of trust.

“Our proposals seek to end the drift that some parties are quite happy to facilitate.

“Our proposals also give locally elected politicians a degree of accountability.

“The UUP is keen to secure the maximum amount of attainable devolution. However we have to realistic. By the election date in 2007 an assessment will have to be made about what is ultimately achievable.”

Devolution has been suspended in Northern Ireland since October 2002 when allegations of a republican spy ring threatened to destroy the Assembly.

After three failed attempts to revive power sharing, the British and Irish governments are preparing fresh talks next month with the Northern Ireland parties on how devolution can return.

The DUP will today present Mr Blair, who will travel to Dublin on Thursday for talks with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, with its plan for the Assembly to sit before moving to full blown devolution.

Last week, Mr Paisley ruled out power sharing with Sinn Féin in the foreseeable future.

The North Antrim MP’s proposals set out a number of ways devolution can be phased in.

Sinn Féin and the nationalist SDLP have in recent days rejected the idea of phased devolution.

They have urged Mr Blair to lift the suspension of the Assembly and force unionists to either nominate or decline to nominate devolved government ministers.

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