14 May 2006

Assembly return raises curtain on power-sharing struggle in the North

Sunday Business Post

By Colm Heatley
14 May 2006

When the Assembly reconvenes tomorrow, it will be almost 32 years to the day since unionists supported the Ulster Workers Council strike, which led to the collapse of the Sunningdale power-sharing executive in 1974.

The political climate in the North is considerably less volatile today, but the road towards achieving an unprecedented power-sharing government between Sinn Fein and the DUP still has difficult territory to navigate.

Both the DUP and Sinn Fein, the two big beasts in the Assembly, face tricky balancing acts in the coming weeks.

In the absence of a power-sharing executive, Sinn Fein cannot be seen to work the Assembly too well. However, they are keen not to be seen in a negative light either.

The DUP is less concerned with public perception and will take an obstructionist approach.

But the party is increasingly aware that political pressure is growing, not least from the British government, for Ian Paisley’s party to make a deal with Sinn Fein.

Despite Sinn Fein stating it will nominate Paisley as First Minister when the Assembly is restored tomorrow, no one expects any significant political progress to be made in the Assembly over the next six weeks; the maximum time it will be given to elect a power-sharing government.

Tomorrow’s restoration is the opening act before the main show. That will begin in earnest this September when the Assembly is reconvened after a summer recess and given a deadline of November 24 to make an historic deal or be supplanted with a form of joint management by both governments.

Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, has already ruled out republican involvement in debates over water rates, education reform or rural planning, some of the most important bread and butter issues facing the North.

McGuinness said that to do so in the absence of a power-sharing executive would be ‘‘pointless’’ since the ultimate decision would rest with unelected British ministers.

‘‘There is no point at all in doing that, it would be a complete waste of time,” he said.

‘‘The primary function of restoring the assembly is to get the power-sharing executive restored. We are not going to take part in a talking shop, a waffling session, where we play second fiddle to British ministers.”

Such a position, though, would leave Sinn Fein open to allegations that it was not playing a full role in the Assembly, so it is possible that the party will come up with a compromise position that ensures it cannot be accused of any negativity.

A little over two months ago Sinn Fein ruled itself out of any involvement in a shadow Assembly without a power-sharing executive.

However, the party is anxious that the main focus of the Assembly should be on the election of such an executive and is keen to ensure that the DUP’s preferred option of a powerless, shadow Assembly has a limited lifespan.

Little detail has yet emerged about exactly what the Assembly will actually do over the next six weeks. What is known is that Sinn Fein’s mid-Ulster MLA, Francie Molloy, and DUP MLA, Jim Wells, have been elected as deputy presiding officers of the Assembly.

The DUP has prepared its path to the Assembly in the normal fashion of the party - it has been on the offensive against Sinn Fein and told unionist voters it has definitively ruled out forming a power-sharing executive and described Gerry Adams’ proposal to nominate Paisley as First Minister as ‘‘a public relations stunt’’.

In line with party policy, the DUP will seek to hold debates on bread-and-butter issues in the knowledge that the outcome of those debates will be pointless, since the Assembly has no executive powers.

However, such a tactic will give the impression of a party keen to do business with its rivals, albeit in a neutered and powerless forum. Both the SDLP and Ulster Unionists, the dominant parties in the North until just five years ago, have been reduced to bit players in the current scenario.

The Ulster Unionists, humiliated in the 2005 Westminster elections, are unlikely to present a challenge to the virtual hegemony which the DUP enjoys within the unionist community.

The restoration of Stormont is unlikely to deliver any political progress. However, the British and Irish governments are hopeful that it will provide impetus to the stalled peace process and focus minds on the eve of the July 12 Orange parades, which always have the potential for real violence.

Both Sinn Fein and the DUP are aware that the endpoint of this process is a power-sharing government.

The DUP’s resistance to the restoration of the Assembly tomorrow and the ultimate goal of power-sharing is rooted in the belief that sharing power with Sinn Fein will undermine the basis of the Northern state.

However, the definite deadline of November 24 set by both governments means that the DUP must play its role in reaching that conclusion or risk joint management of the north by the Irish and British governments.

The Assembly’s restoration this week is a curtain raiser designed to prepare the ground for a historic deal before the year’s end.

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