`Dialogue of the deaf has ended; the prize is immense,' Major tells Ulster

David McKittrick looks at the main points of the document and considers the prospects for a lasting settlement A FRAMEWORK FOR PEACE Unionists fear `slippery slope' to united Ireland
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The Independent Online
The two documents released yesterday - the joint Framework Document and the British Government's paper on a new Belfast assembly - sketch out what London and Dublin describe as a new political dispensation for Northern Ireland and Anglo-Irish relations.

The picture emerging last night was one of nationalist pleasure and Unionist dismay at the approach, which envisages involvement of the Republic in a comprehensive and progressively expanding manner. Although both governments stress that the documents are not blueprints, all parties are aware that, as the product of two years of negotiation, they represent the considered common view of London and Dublin.

The main framework document describes itself as a joint understanding intended to give impetus and direction to the talks process. At the heart of the new dispensation is a substantial, though as yet unnamed, North- South body with a wide range of powers and functions.

The document argues that such new institutions are necessary to cater for present and future political, social and economic inter-connections on the island of Ireland.

Unionists had wanted any North-South arrangements to be established by a new Belfast assembly in which they would have a majority, thus giving them a large measure of control over its remit.

Instead, the document says the North-South body would be set up on the authority of Westminster and the Dail.

Furthermore, heads of departments in the new assembly would have no choice but to take part in the new body, being under "a duty of service".

It would also have much more power than Unionists would like, having consultative, harmonising and executive functions.

The document makes clear that the North-South body's powers, in addition to being substantial from the outset, would also be expected to grow as more matters were progressively transferred to it.

In a particularly striking passage, the document states: "Within those responsibilities transferred to new institutions in Northern Ireland, the British government have no limits of their own to impose on the nature and extent of functions which could be agreed for designation or subsequently."

Unionists will inevitably view this arrangement as the deliberate construction of a mechanism designed to channel more and more powers from Britain, and from the Belfast assembly, to an increasingly powerful cross-border body over which they have little control. Such an open-ended approach comes close to the Unionist nightmare of a "slippery slope" propelling them inexorably closer to a united Ireland.

In its consultative role the North-South body would be a forum where representatives of the North and South would have a stipulated "duty to exchange information".

In its harmonising function, in addition to this duty, there would be an obligation on both sides to make determined efforts to reach agreement.

The document envisages that harmonising would cover economic policy, industrial development, health, education and many other important areas. Executive functions would from the beginning cover sectors involving a natural or physical all-Ireland framework, EC programmes and initiatives and culture and heritage. The idea is that in many instances the consultative function would develop into harmonisation and ultimately reach the executive stage.

The two governments lay heavy emphasis on its ability to grow, saying that the remit of the body should be dynamic, enabling progressive extension by agreement of its functions to new areas.

The body would have an important role in relation to the European Community, in evolving an agreed approach for the whole island and in administering all EC programmes which were on an island-wide basis. Dealing with constitutional issues, it repeats the Downing Street declaration's statement that both parts of Ireland have the right to self-determination. But it specifies that the British Government "will not impede" the freedom of the people of Northern Ireland if they should decide to opt for a united Ireland.

It mentions that Britain will consider amending or replacing the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, which set up the state of Northern Ireland.

Dublin, in a balancing move, undertakes to introduce and support proposals for change in the Irish Constitution, which presently lays claim to Northern Ireland.

The changes, which need to be approved in a referendum in the Republic, would reflect the principle of consent and drop the constitutional claim. They would also maintain the "existing birthright" of everyone born in either part of Ireland to be part of the Irish nation.

The document did not, as some observers had expected, spell out an exact proposal for amending the present wording.

London and Dublin also envisage a new and more broadly-based version of the current Anglo-Irish Agreement, based on a standing inter-governmental conference and "intensification of the co-operation and partnership between the governments".

The British Government, in its separate document on a new Belfast assembly, stresses that arrangements have to be acceptable to both parts of the community, and propose an elaborate system of checks and balances to achieve this.

A 90-member assembly, elected by proportional representation, would form committees to oversee the work of Northern Ireland departments. Their chairmen and deputy chairmen would be elected by weighted majority.

Important and contentious votes in the assembly would also have to be passed by weighted majority, which might also be used in the committees to ensure that minorities were not continually outvoted. Power would be spread among the assembly, its committee chairmen and a new three-person panel, elected separately, which would have extensive supervisory powers which would be required to act on a basis of unanimity.

Nationalists, while finding fault with points of detail, were last night generally happy with the fact that the British Government is clearly moving towards of view of the island of Ireland as one entity.

Unionists, by contrast, found little of comfort in that practically none of the proposed moves led in the direction of a strengthened Union, but rather pointed towards steadily increasing Dublin influence.

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