Since my last article I have obtained Hansard for Tuesday 21st November 2006. It includes the debate on and the passing of the Saint AndrewÕs Agreement Bill after its second and third readings in the House ofd Commons. It was then approved by the House of Lords and became law after it had received the royal assent.
I have read the report of the debate with contributions and questions from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, from Northern Ireland MPs (apart from Sinn Féin who do not take their seats), from Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and others. My view is that although dates have been fixed for elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly together with rules and conditions for ministers who may be appointed there is considerable scope for the return to devolved government to be frustrated and even abandoned.
During the debate there was much harking back to the past when, following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the Assembly had been set up and was functioning. There were allegations with supporting quotations about which organisations, parties or members were responsible for the conditions which had brought about its suspension four years previously.
Although amendments had been put down by DUP and SDLP members the Bill was passed as presented. The Unionist amendments during the committee stage were rejected by 319 votes to 12.
When the SDLP amendments were under consideration it was noted that no DUP members were in the chamber. When this point was raised the SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, said he was not surprised. He thought that the DUP had been satisfied that they had a done deal at Saint Andrew’s. Moreover, he thought that the government had also done one there with Sinn Féin. The DUP knew that the government would do the job for them, hence their absence. This was refuted by ministers in their replies. Eventually the SDLP amendments, which they claimed were to strengthen the Bill, were withdrawn on the basis of ministerial assurances.
My view, as I have said on other occasions is that the strategy pursued by the DUP and their leader, Ian Paisley, before and since the Belfast Agreement of 10th April 1998, is to make that unworkable, to become the dominant Unionist voice and to achieve a one‑sided partisan government such as existed before 1972 in the old Stormont administration.
That, of course, would be a real disaster for if he and his followers should reach that goal the two communities would be again in serious conflict.
It was clear from what DUP MPs said that, although they accused others of delaying tactics in respect of previous deadlines set by the Secretary of State, the thrust of their amendments was to make the new deadline for the return of devolved government, 26th March 2007 – if agreement had not been reached by then, to be moved further into the future.
They denied this was their intention when the Secretary of State accused them that by their amendments they were trying to get on to the old merry‑go‑round of maybe sometime never. He refused to answer their ‘what if’ questions about the firmness of the deadline and whether he should fix a date by which Sinn Féin must hold its Ard Fheis to commit itself to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and join the Police Board.
The position of the Secretary of State, at the start and at the closing of the debate and following the voting down of the DUP amendments and the withdrawal of those of the SDLP was as follows:
“On November 24 November the current Northern Ireland Assembly will meet. During the meeting the two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, may nominate the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister respectively. The restoration of the Assembly will take place on 26th March 2007”.
This would trigger into existence the ‘Transitional Assembly’ which will then be able to get down to the real work of preparing for government.
In January 2007 the Monitoring Commission will publish its 13th report, the 7th such report since the IRA declared that it would end its illegal activity.
On the 7th March there will be an election in which the people will speak. On 14th March members of the Executive will be nominated by the party leaders. On 26th March power will be devolved and ministers will assume office. “That Monday”, said the Secretary of State, “will be ‘Democracy Day’ for Northern Ireland”.
The meeting of the current Northern Ireland Assembly took place on 24th November as part of the ‘Preparation for Government’ during which Ian Paisley was to say whether or not he would join in government with Sinn Féin.
However, like a blast from the past, as the discussions were under way, they were interrupted in the shape of Michael Stone, a Loyalist paramilitary gunman. He had been convicted and imprisoned for shooting dead several mourners at an IRA funeral in Belfast
’s Milltown Cemetery which was seen on television. He had been released under an amnesty following the Good Friday 1998 Agreement.
He burst on the scene in the entrance to the Stormont building and flung a bag at the security personnel shouting that they contained bombs. At least seven explosive devices were later found and diffused.
He loudly alleged that Ian paisley had conceded too much to Sinn Féin and was wrestled to the ground by security officers, including a woman.
Subsequently the proceedings were adjourned and reconvened the following Monday, 27th November when the ‘Preparation for Government’ negotiations resumed. This was so that the current Assembly could continue to explore ways and means by which , stage by stage, the return of devolved government might be achieved.
It appears that some of the Northern Ireland parties, especially the SDLP, would have preferred a referendum to endorse the Saint Andrew’s Agreement or otherwise. They were unsuccessful in their attempt and anyway the Westminster government had been determined to have an election, on which Sinn Féin and the DUP had settled between them.
One of the issues included in the Act concerns the institution of a ministerial code of conduct. This will set down responsibilities, including that of consulting and informing the other ministers in the Executive of their policy decisions and intentions and how their departments relate to each other. This will allow for the Executive as a body to override contentious elements of decisions in any department.
The Act details these requirements but in the event of devolved government being reestablished it will be within the competence of the elected Assembly to determine, within its rules and constitution, whether the Ministerial Code needs to be altered, strengthened or amended.
One significant change from the 1998 Agreement which set up the original Assembly is the way the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are appointed.
Although, as before, each Assembly Member has to be designated, according to party allegiance, as Nationalist, Unionist or other, the largest party in each group, currently the DUP and Sinn Féin, can nominate for these posts. that will be the sole requirement needed for their nomination, they will not need the vote from other members of the Assembly. The other ten ministerial posts will be allocated on the basis of their party’s strength in the Assembly.
However, each minister, including the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, will be required on taking office to make four new commitments as conditions of such office:
1. they must uphold the rule of law (including supporting policing and the courts as set out in paragraph 6 of the Saint Andrew’s Agreement.
2. Promote the interests of the whole of the Northern Ireland Community.
3. Participate fully in the Executive Committee, in the North South Ministerial Council and in the British and Irish Council.
4. Observe the joint nature of the offices of First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
The joint nature of these two posts is embedded in the Act by the fact that if either of them is for any reason no longer in either of these two offices the other is automatically barred from making decisions except on purely administrative and necessary matters.
It is the position in respect of policing in Northern Ireland which is crucial to further progress towards restoration of the Assembly. That now depends on Sinn Féin’s being able to carry support for for their participation when their Ard Fheis is called to discuss their position.
If they don’t indicate or come to an acceptable arrangement there is no possibility of the Saint Andrew’s Agreement being implemented. The DUP have made it conditional that they will only participate if this is forthcoming.
Paisley knows full well the problems Adams and McGuinness have to surmount for this to be carried within Sinn Féin’s Ard Fheis. Of course he himself has a difficulty with twelve of his Assembly members who are not satisfied even with his tentative agreement to serve with Sinn Féin in the Joint Executive.
At present the Assembly in its current form is meeting in various committee groups. One of these, consisting of six representatives of the main parties, is grappling with the task of getting a formula to bring the two major parties to a point where the road to government is opened. It is required to report by 6th January, whether or not they have been successful.
The issue is centred on when policing in the Six Counties will come under the new Assembly when it is restored. Under the Act this depends on whether the Secretary of State considers it right to do so around the middle of August 2008.
The decision about the transfer of police powers to the Assembly depends on whether the Secretary of State feels that the system is functioning successfully and cooperatively in all sections, particularly in respect of law and order and so can be safely placed in the hands of the Assembly.
Although in answer to the reported threats of assassination from dissident republicans Gerry Adams says that the Sinn Féin leaders will not be deflected from their policies in the peace process it will not be easy to get a quick decision as many have to be convinced that police powers are guaranteed even in 2008.
Even if these powers were devolved there would be many difficulties to contend with which might get in the way of reaching agreement in the other aspects of government. I am also sceptical about whether the Saint Andrew’s Act will come into effect as early as envisaged.
In retrospect a referendum might have been a more certain way of underpinning what is in effect a review of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. This has been driven by the DUP, following their ascendancy over their rivals, the Ulster Unionist Party, Paisley’s party having opted out of the 1998 negotiations.
The Preparation for Government discussions will, it seems, continue until the 29th of January 2007. Then, providing the issues separating the parties particularly Sinn Féin and the DUP are resolved, the present Assembly elected on 26th November 2003 will be dissolved. The election of the new Assembly will then take place on 7th March 2007.
If, however, that election does not take place, which of course is dependent on the contentious issues being resolved before then, and the Secretary of State considers that there is no reasonable prospect that an Executive will be formed on 26th March there is the power to provide for the dissolution of the Assembly and the indefinite postponement of Assembly elections.
If the Secretary of State does not make such an order then an order must be made for the restoration of devolved government which will come into effect on 28th March provided that an Executive has been formed on 26th March.
If all the ministerial posts have not been filled by 26th March the Secretary of State must make an order revoking the restoration order, that new order to come into effect on 28th March.
So, to echo the words of Taoiseach Ahern before the Saint Andrew’s proposals came before the Westminster Parliament, everything is not quite done and dusted.
There are many critical moments yet to be encountered and navigated around and the idea mooted by some MPs that the timetable might be subject to slippage could yet happen.
It may well be that the Secretary of State may have to consider that the dissolution could go ahead and that despite there being no agreement the election takes place on 7th March. Then the parties will be seeking mandates on how the Saint Andrew’s proposals might be altered or implemented. As one Conservative MP on 21st November pointed out the composition of a newly elected Assembly might be considerably changed.
There is much to mull over for all concerned, including the Secretary of State, in the next few weeks. If they seriously want to have a reestablished functioning Assembly, movement and compromise may be imperative for all of them.
But there are some who are prepared to dig in their heels in a ‘No Surrender’ mode. Nigel Dodds and Geoffrey Donaldson are likely candidates and Paisley himself might renege. Sinn Fˇin have the problem of getting an affirmative decision on policing at their Ard Fheis.
My own view is that it would have been better to have a restored Assembly run until 2008 before holding an election. Who knows, unless there is movement now, that may well be the outcome.