16 November 2006

New bill to create interim Ulster assembly

Guardian

Matthew Tempest and agencies
Wednesday November 15, 2006
Guardian Unlimited

Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland secretary, will tomorrow (Thursday) begin the job of rushing through one of the most urgent pieces of legislation in the Queen's speech - a bill to create a transitional Northern Ireland assembly under the historic St Andrews agreement.

The bill would create a transitional assembly between November and next March, when it would also allow for the recreation of the full devolved Assembly.

Devolved government was suspended in Northern Ireland four years ago in the wake of an alleged IRA spy ring.

A second bill relating to Northern Ireland was also in the Queens speech, which would allow for more jury trials as the province reaches a process of normalisation and greater peace.

Until now many trials have been held under the Diplock court system, and presided over by a judge only, for fear of intimidation and sectarian reprisals on jury members.

The director of public prosecutions will, under the legislation, have the ability to decide whether certain cases will be tried without a jury. This will affect cases where the DPP believes there is a risk that jurors may be intimidated.

The main Northern Ireland (St Andrews agreement) bill - being introduced tomorrow by Mr Hain to the Commons - will create a new transitional assembly operating between November 24 - the day when the Democratic Unionist leader, the Rev Ian Paisley, and Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness are due to be appointed first and deputy first minister - and the restoration date of a new executive.

Under British and Irish government proposals, March 26 has been set as the target date for restoring a fully functional power-sharing executive.

The bill will also contain a commitment to allow the electorate to endorse the St Andrews proposals either through a fresh assembly election or referendum. Most commentators expect fresh elections in the spring.

The legislation will also change the procedure for appointing the first minister and deputy first minister, which currently can only go ahead if the joint nominees secure the support of a majority of unionist assembly members and a majority of nationalists.

The November 24 date for swearing in of the Dr Paisley Mr McGuinness is starting to slip, however, as the DUP complains that the republicans are not fully committed to backing the new Police Service of Northern Ireland.

To do that, the Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, who earlier this week revealed there have been death threats against him and other senior party leaders from hard-line republicans, will have to call a special party conference to consider any change in policy.

The West Belfast MP has insisted he cannot recommend a special party conference on policing because negotiations on the issue are continuing.

In particular, Sinn Féin wants the DUP to agree to a definite date for the transfer of policing and justice powers from Westminster to Stormont and to the type of government department that will handle it. Both sides will be scrutinising the St Andrews legislation to see if it offers a solution to the key issue of transferring powers.

The bill will also make changes to the ministerial code and duties will be placed on a restored power-sharing government to develop strategies relating to poverty and social exclusion and the development of the Irish and Ulster Scots languages.

There will also be amendments of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, changing the way district police partnerships are appointed in the province, and to the education (Northern Ireland) order 2006, allowing the assembly to have the final say on whether academic selection should be scrapped in the event of a return to power sharing.

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