Disjointed Executive

The Northern Ireland Assembly reconvened on September 15th. As yet, however, I have not seen any session on the BBC Parliament Channel. So, because there is still an impasse between the DUP and Sinn Féin in respect of the devolution of police powers, I suspect that things may be in limbo.

During the recess the 'marching season' passed off reasonably well. Though low key, it was not without incidents but community leaders managed to contain serious reactions at the usual flashpoints - the interfaces of the two communities. There was a symbolic confrontation at Drumcree to register the Orange order's demand that their parade should be allowed to return via the Garvaghy Road.

The lack of agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin on the policing devolution is preventing a meeting of the Joint Executive. The former are not yet satisfied that the IRA Army Council has been dissolved despite the recent Monitoring Commission report that it is no longer operational, that they were satisfied it posed no threat, that there was no evidence of activity and no intent to return to violence.

The DUP leadership seems to be still pursuing their former leader Paisley's stance of wanting some physical indication that the Army council had been disbanded. That is difficult to visualise which is probably the reason they keep calling for it.

Maybe they just do so to satisfy their supporters, hoping if they wait long enough their pressure will subside. Would they require to see the IRA Army Council publicly and collectively committing suicide or on TV screens at least?

Perhaps they want to see, in some public forum, a meeting of this secret council formally, without dissension, passing a motion of dissolution.

They only make a demand for disbandment because they know full well that a secret organisation cannot convince disbelievers that they no longer exist. Surely with Sinn Féin, choosing the political path and sticking to it - and no action being directed by the now clearly defunct Army Council - it allows further progress in devolution to proceed.

Paisley seems quite muted now - perhaps his illness has returned. David Trimble has integrated with his colleague Lord Maginnis into the British conservative fold in the second chamber of the Westminster Parliament.

This has left the Ulster Unionist leader, Reg Empey, at Stormont in an Executive ministerial post, paddling his own canoe. He has shown an interest in the call by Mark Durkan of the SDLP for an end to the mandatory composition of the Joint Executive.

The purpose of this call is not clear, perhaps he may venture to divulge his intentions when the first session in the chamber is eventually held.

It is possible that he wants to end the 2007 Saint Andrew's Agreement whereby the leaders of the largest party and the second largest automatically occupy the First and Deputy First Ministerial positions which helped to re-establish the Assembly.

Does he, I wonder, seek to get back to the original position set out in the 1998 Belfast Agreement when support for these appointments was required on a cross community vote under the D'Monte principles.

If this is his aim it would be a spanner in the works and cause further confusion and disruption in the delicate business of reconciliation and cooperation. He needs to make his proposals and aims much clearer.

The removal of the centrifugal effect of mandatory coalition would generate its opposite, centripetal animosity and frustration, and destroy the whole edifice.

Incidentally, I see that a former Ulster Unionist Assembly Member, who defected to the DUP believing that they would never join in government with Sinn Féin, has now defected to a small section, led by Jim Alister, calling themselves 'Traditional Unionists'.

Of course there are tensions inside all of the parties composing the Joint Executive and between them also as well as between the DUP and Sinn Féin, the major one being the devolution of policing. The Secretary of State, Shaun Woodward, is pressing them to come to some kind of understanding in order to complete the process as envisaged in the 1998 Agreement.

The latest information suggests that these two parties might accept someone, outside their ranks, taking responsibility for a devolved police organisation. However, it appears that David Ford, the leader of the Alliance Party, has indicated that he is not interested in accepting that role.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown during his visit earlier this month has not, it seems, effected a breakthrough on the deadlock although the Secretary of State Woodward has expressed optimism that a solution will be achieved.

The Joint Executive has not met since June. The one due today, 18th September, was cancelled, it is said, because Sinn Féin would not attend. The other parties, however, had some bilateral meetings but no date for the next meeting is available.

If this failure is part of an attempted coup and the SDLP is also involved and it is related to Mark Durkan's call for an end to mandatory coalition there will be very serious questions about the future to be faced.

One of the problems which Sinn Féin will have, if they eventually get the policing powers devolved to the Assembly - and their own participation - is how to deal with the dissident Republicans who have not gone away. They will also need to to ensure that policies in respect of Northern Ireland lie with the Northern membership and not interfered with by their Southern colleagues.

There are many pitfalls to avoid and tricky situations to negotiate and the whole edifice may be imperilled by intransigence rearing its ugly head in all quarters.

The Secretary of State has, as I said, expressed optimism. I hope he is right but I'm not so sanguine and know that the deeply engrained antagonisms are not easily overcome.

©:Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, Wales, 18 September 2008.

Samuel H. Boyd