16 February 2006

Law 'may help revive NI assembly'

BBC

The government is to unveil legislation which could lend fresh momentum to Northern Ireland's political process.

The Northern Ireland Bill will enable the secretary of state to transfer policing and justice powers to local politicians if he deems it appropriate.

Political Development Minister David Hanson is due to hold talks at Stormont with some of the parties.

He will focus on possible changes to the rules of any future Stormont Assembly.

Devolved government at Stormont was suspended in 2003 following allegations of a republican spy ring at the Northern Ireland Office.

The new bill is expected to make new provisions for the devolution of policing and justice powers so that a speedy transition could be made once the assembly reaches agreement on the matter.

The bill will also deal with the funding of political parties and a number of other measures.

BBC NI's political editor Mark Devenport said the Northern Ireland Bill could be described as an "Uncle Tom Cobbley and all" law.

The prime minister will not visit NI next week

"Ministers have loaded measures to cover a wide range of topics into the bill in order to avoid having to seek more time at Westminster," he said.

"The bill will enable the secretary of state to transfer policing and justice powers to local politicians when he deems it appropriate."

It is believed that a discussion paper will set out various models, including the possibility of two ministers from different parties sharing the responsibility.

Sinn Fein has demanded this bill, but the DUP appears negative about the details.

On party funding, it is thought the official watchdog body, the Electoral Commission, will have to be informed about donations.

Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, Irish citizens resident abroad will be allowed to give money to parties in Northern Ireland.

It is understood there are measures to provide an all-Ireland electricity market and to allow a future assembly to borrow more money.

There is also a measure offering the secretary of state flexibility to call a snap election.

On Wednesday, Downing Street sources told the BBC that a planned visit to Northern Ireland next week by Prime Minister Tony Blair had been cancelled.

The sources said after meeting the DUP, UUP and SDLP on Wednesday, "Mr Blair was developing an idea of the direction in which the government should go".

It is understood Mr Blair wants to meet Sinn Fein and reflect on the views of all the parties before making a speech.

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