26 March 2006

D'Hondt plan set for May

Sunday Times

Liam Clarke
March 26, 2006

THE British and Irish governments may trigger the d’Hondt mechanism for picking a power sharing administration in Northern Ireland as early as May.

Officials accept that the first attempt will fail, leading to intense negotiations and a second effort about four months later. In the meantime there will also be efforts to get the loyalist paramilitaries to disarm and disband.

Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair will finalise their plans in a series of meetings with the Northern Ireland political parties this week. They will unveil a final blueprint on April 6 at the headquarters of the north/south bodies in Armagh.

The choice of venue is intended to remind unionists that if they do not enter government with Sinn Fein, more issues will be handled on a north/south basis and a greater role will be given to the Irish government.

The prime minister and the taoiseach have still not finalised their plans. The option of attempting to form an executive in May is favoured by nationalists and some in the Ulster Unionists. If, as expected, the power sharing model set out in the Good Friday agreement does not work, the parties will have six weeks to find an alternative.

Mark Durkan, the SDLP leader, believes that will focus minds on an acceptable compromise. “People are treating the process like Goldilocks treated the porridge, saying ‘this is not just right and that is not just right’. We want parties tested, and in the event that they don’t form an executive, then the fallback should be the minimum deviation possible from the Good Friday agreement,” he said.

SDLP sources say the British and Irish governments seemed to be moving towards this approach in meetings before St Patrick’s Day.

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