24 March 2006

'Take it or leave it' Assembly

Belfast Telegraph

Premiers ready to test institution to destruction

By Brian Walker
24 March 2006

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern are expected to take the plunge today and propose the restoration of the Assembly in a few weeks' time.

The Premiers were meeting on the margins of a European summit in Brussels to settle the details of a full Assembly recall which could give the parties up to five months of concentrated effort to try to reach a political deal.

Although Downing Street was declining to speculate about future moves ahead of the meeting, the Prime Ministers may fly to Belfast to unveil the plan in a fortnight.

Anticipating the move in a weekend interview, the Taoiseach said the prospect of an Assembly without an Executive "shouldn't stop the Assembly operating for a period of time while there is work for it to do".

Following the collapse of last month's "shadow" Assembly plan after Mr Ahern talked Mr Blair out of it, it was Downing Street's turn to adopt the more cautious approach.

Asked why it was the Taoiseach rather than the Prime Minister who seemed to be taking the lead, British sources replied: "It's we who have to take the actual decision on the Assembly and we want to make sure all the pieces are there first."

This time, Mr Blair and Mr Ahern are likely to present the parties with a "take it or leave it " choice to test the institution to destruction.

They are not expected to propose conditions or a timetable for a shadow Assembly.

Parties in the full Assembly will be free to form an Executive if they wish.

The plan is understood to involve "rolling D'Hondt twice," allowing the Assembly to sit for the six weeks laid down by law for electing an Executive and if that fails, suspending it for a period, perhaps over the summer, then reconvening it again in the autumn for a second try.

In the meantime the Assembly members would be able - but could not be compelled - to form committees to influence Peter Hain's controversial reform programme for councils, schools and hospitals.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP remain cool, fearing a recall without a straight commitment to an Executive would create pressure to make Assembly committees the substitute for an inclusive power sharing government of Ministers, which is what the DUP wants.

Gerry Adams said: "There's only one Assembly and that's the Assembly as outlined by the Good Friday Agreement.

"There isn't any half-way house, in-between, transitional, interim arrangement."

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