05 June 2006

FIRST COMMITTEE MEETING ENDS IN STALEMATE

IAIS

06/05/06 09:01 EST

The first meeting in Northern Ireland of the Preparation for Government Committee has ended in stalemate. The representatives of all the main parties failed to agree who would be appointed as chairperson of the body.

A variety of proposals were discussed but no agreement was reached at the meeting held at Stormont today.

Sinn Fein`s Martin McGuiness suggested that the committee be either jointly chaired by representatives of this own party and the DUP or rotated between the parties.

This was rejected by the DUP.

In turn, the DUP proposed the Assembly Speaker, Eileen Bell, as a possible chairperson, but she rejected the role herself and left the meeting.

The DUP also suggested their own South Antrim MP William McCrea and the Alliance Party leader Daivd Forde for the role.

However, Mr Ford said he would only consider the role as part of a wider rotation system between all the parties.

DUP leader Ian Paisley denied his party was not taking the committee seriously by sending unimportant party figures to represent it.

Mr McGuinness has asked for another meeting of the committee on Tuesday, however, it is unclear at present if that will happen.

Some of the parties are writing to British Secretary of State Peter Hain to clarify whether the need for "consensus" means the committee can only move forward on the basis of unanimity.

Earlier, Mr Paisley said he would ask the British government for a two week extension to the November 24 deadline to devolution in Northern Ireland.

He called for what he described as "injury time" at Stormont.

The DUP is annoyed about the British government not scheduling any debates for the Assembly, so it wants two week's extension to the 24 November devolution deadline.

If the government accedes to Paisley's latest demand, that would push the deadline to 8 December. However the November 24 date is written into the law which set up the current assembly, so any change would require fresh legislation, which seems unlikely.

The DUP has insisted that the committee should not be a negotiating body, while the SDLP wants it to do precisely that.

Alliance Party leader David Ford said he had reservations about the committee, but would join.

On Sunday, Ulster Unionist Party leader Sir Reg Empey said he had appointed Alan McFarland, Danny Kennedy and Michael McGimpsey to represent the party on the committee.

"Although we still remain concerned at the manner in which the remit for the committee has been arrived at, we will approach it in a positive manner and seek to identify the obstacles that are standing in the way of devolution and deal with them," he said.

On 15 May, Northern Ireland's politicians took their seats in the Stormont assembly for the first time since October 2002.

While there is no immediate prospect of a power-sharing executive being formed, the British government hopes recalling the politicians will help to pave the way towards a deal in the fall, by its deadline of 24 November.

Devolved government was suspended over allegations of a republican spy ring. The court case that followed collapsed when it emerged that a British Intelligence agent was at the center of the alleged spy ring.

Direct rule from London was restored in October 2002 and has been in place since.

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