New roadmap unveiled for Northern Ireland devolution

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Logo of the Northern Ireland Assembly

Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have unveiled a new roadmap for the Northern Ireland devolution process. The roadmap sets a target date for a new Northern Ireland Executive to be set up.

The roadmap, known as the Saint Andrews Agreement, came after three days of intense talks in St. Andrews, Scotland. The agreement gives dates for the steps to devolution culminating on March 26, 2007 when the Executive is to be fully up and running.

The first deadline is on November 10, 2006 during which time both parties must accept the agreement and for the first time in the history of the party, the Democratic Unionist Party will cast a vote for their rivals, Sinn Fein.

The second deadline is on November 27, 2006 in which the Northern Ireland Assembly, would gather to elect the first minister and deputy first minister of the Executive. The first minister is speculated by many to be Ian Paisley, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. The deputy first minister is speculated to be Martin McGuinness, the deputy leader of Sinn Fein.

One of the key issues is Sinn Fein's recognition of the Police Service of Northern Island, which replaced the controversial Royal Ulster Constabulary. In a reassurance to unionists, the governments said they will not transfer duties over to the executive till 2008. Sinn Fein demanded an immediate transfer of power, possibly to a Sinn Fein minister. "You can't have a democratic society unless the police are given full support," Blair said.

After the election of ministers, three steps will take place. The Democratic Unionists will be given time to observe Sinn Fein and see if they are accepting policing. Also, in January, the Independent Monitoring Commission will give another report on the status of the Provisional Irish Republican Army revocation of violence.

Finally in March, an electoral endorsement of the Saint Andrews Agreement will take place be it either through election or referendum. Most of the participants at the summit favored a referendum, except for Ian Paisley, according to an anonymous source who wished not be identified as he no authorization to release details publicly.

The last two final steps take place in March 2007. On March 14, the nomination of the Executive will take place.

Finally, if all goes well, the Northern Ireland Executive power-sharing government and full devolved Northern Ireland Assembly would be revived and take power on March 26, 2007. However, if the parties fail to set up the Executive or fail to agree "at any stage", the Assembly will be dissolved and direct rule from London will continue with input from the Republic of Ireland.

Tony Blair said the essential parts of the agreement are that all parties accept policing and the courts and have a clear agreement on power-sharing. "So those are the two essential parts of it," Mr Blair said.

Ian Paisley, the notorious hardliner evangelist who has made his political career out of saying no to comprehensive reforms, eschewed his trademark fire-brand rhetoric offered a welcome and said that the province is "at a crossroads." Paisley said of Ulster, "a place where there is a road to democracy and where there is a road to anarchy." Further adding, "I trust that we will see in the coming days the vast majority of people taking the road to democracy."

Blair also added, "We've been through different parts of this process many times over the past few years but I think this is a sound basis to proceed." He also said on the possible election of Paisley and McGuinness to their minister positions, "I do not think anybody will find it easy to sit in an executive with people who they are deeply opposed to, or indeed hostile to."

Referring to Sinn Fein, Paisley stated "We will meet the requirements. But the IRA-Sinn Fein has got to meet those requirements. And when they do, we will really be on the way to peace in Northern Ireland." Paisley left St. Andrews quickly after attending the press conference in order to be with his family for his fiftieth wedding anniversary.

Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams offered a guarded welcome of the plans and stated "requires thoughtful consideration and consultation." He made no mention of policing. However, he stated the restoration of power-sharing was an "an enormous prize. Common sense, political realism and the interests of all sections of our people demand that we achieve this."

Sir Reg Empey, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party said that the agreement was "Belfast for slower learners." He added "Sinn Fein will sign up to the PSNI being the only force of law and order and Ian Paisley, or a colleague, will share the joint office of first and deputy first minister with Martin McGuinness in a mandatory coalition."

Leader of the more moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, Mark Durkan stated that welcome progress had been made in devolution and that his party would continue working towards this.

The leader of the cross-community non-sectarian Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, David Ford said of the summit that the outcome of the summit was a mix of "of challenges and opportunities". He added, "Despite all that remains to be done, there is now at least a sense of hope for a shared future."

Direct rule from London has been in place since the Assembly and Executive dissolved in 2002 over allegations of IRA spying ring.