Forum proves a pedant's paradise

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The Independent Online
The Northern Ireland political forum, whose 110 members emerged from last month's election, yesterday took a leisurely three and a half hours to conduct two minor items of business.

Meeting in the distinctly unparliamentary surroundings of a converted department store near Belfast city centre, the mood of delegates was more comic than rancorous.

But instead of responding to the admonition of the Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, to show itself as "a force for reconciliation and healing", the meeting proved to be a procedural pedants' paradise.

The light hand of interim chairman John Gorman of the Ulster Unionist Party turned the meeting into what in Northern Ireland parlance is known as "a geg" - a largely good-natured and entertaining knockabout.

The bitterness which surfaced among Unionist parties in the formal negotiating talks at Stormont earlier in the week flashed to the surface only occasionally, but interminable points of order led to the plaintive appeal from Mr Gorman: "I want to try and end the first day of the forum with a decision on something."

Although the forum provides members to the main talks process, it has itself no legislative, administrative or executive powers. Its political importance is further diminished by the fact that Sinn Fein boycotts its meetings.

By the end of the first session the forum finally managed to decide the make-up of its rules and business committees.