NORTHERN IRELAND: A complex system to fix a complex problem

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The Independent Online
IF SUPPORTERS of the Good Friday Agreement have their way, Northern Ireland will, within five days, be run by a complex new political architecture, representing a whole new way of government.

This is all set out in the Agreement, though the decommissioning dispute has held things up for well over a year. Monday, however, could see the appointment of a new executive which will stretch from one extreme to the other, encompassing both republicans and Paisleyites.

This executive will be in charge of a Belfast assembly at the centrepiece of a political web which will take in both London and Dublin. Although many of the new rules have been laid down in the Agreement, a lot of the details will have to be settled as the politicians go along.

The 108-member assembly was elected last year and has met on various occasions, but power has yet to be transferred to it. This will only happen if an executive is successfully formed tomorrow.

Electoral arithmetic has already determined that Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, as head of the party with the largest number of seats, will be first minister. His deputy is to be Seamus Mallon of the nationalist SDLP.

Beneath them will be a 10-member executive committee, which may well come to be called a cabinet. The arithmetic dictates that the 10 will consist of three of Mr Trimble's people, three of Mr Mallon's, two from Sinn Fein and two Paisleyites.

It is considered unlikely that an executive with such diverse elements will develop anything resembling collective responsibility. The Rev Ian Paisley, for example, has already made it clear that while his two men will accept ministerial office, they will not attend executive meetings alongside Sinn Fein.

Beneath this superstructure will be a network of assembly committees with scrutiny and policy development roles. Since they are designed to have considerable powers, their chairpersons may well come to be influential figures.

Members of the assembly have already been required to designate themselves as Unionist or nationalist, and in assembly votes this will be of major significance. The Agreement has laid down that important decisions of the assembly will be valid only if they have substantial support from both the Unionist and nationalist sides.

London will retain control of security and policing, which means that the assembly will have no power over the Army or RUC. It will however take over responsibility for the economy, education, agriculture and many other areas. The executive will decide how to allocate monies supplied in an annual block grant from Westminster.

The assembly and executive will be charged not just with running Northern Ireland but also with forging a link with the Irish Republic, through a new North-South ministerial council to develop co-operation on an all- Ireland basis. Unionists tend to play down this part of the new arrangements while nationalists tend to play it up.

Another new body will provide for contacts between the assembly and the new devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales, and yet another will link Britain and the Republic in an overarching framework. While everyone agrees that this is a highly elaborate system, the general sense is that Northern Ireland is a complex problem requiring a complex solution.


10 April 1998: Good Friday Agreement is signed at Stormont after 22 months of negotiations and declared a triumph. Devolution will proceed hand-in-hand with the surrender of paramilitary arsenals. Sinn Fein guarantees to "deliver the IRA". Former US senator George Mitchell, the chairman of the peace talks, receives much of the credit for the agreement.

12 April 1998: Gerry Adams threatens to undermine the Belfast peace deal within hours of its birth by paying tribute to the IRA unit blamed for planting the Enniskillen bomb.

22 May 1998: The people of Northern Ireland display massive support for the Stormont peace deal as 71.12 per cent in the North-South Referendums vote in favour of the Agreement.

15 Aug 1998: Omagh bomb explodes, killing 29, injuring 311. Peace process severely shaken.

29 March 1999: Deadlock over decommissioning threatens to wreck the Agreement. Blair flies to Belfast to try to resolve the issue.

15 July 1999: Ulster Unionists refuse to join the new power-sharing executive and boycott the Assembly meeting to nominate Northern Ireland's new government. Tony Blair is forced to "park" the peace process over the summer.

26 Aug 1999: Mo Mowlam declares the ceasefire intact, despite a litany of murders, beatings and expulsions. Her statement, along with a decision not to halt the early release of Republican paramilitary prisoners, lead Unionists to brand her a Sinn Fein puppet.

6 Sep 1999: Senator George Mitchell's make- or-break review of the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, which Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists have both agreed to take part in, begins in Stormont.

10 Sep 1999: David Trimble's deputy, John Taylor, walks out on the peace process after claiming that the Good Friday Agreement will never work, after the publication of Chris Patten's report on the future of Northern Ireland's police force, including proposals to rename the RUC and axe thousands of officers.

11 Oct 1999: Peter Mandelson becomes Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

15 Nov 1999: Senator George Mitchell declares: "We are just a small step from peace."

16 Nov 1999: David Trimble risks a party split by offering to form a power-sharing government with Sinn Fein before the IRA has decommissioned a single weapon.

17 Nov 1999: The IRA confirms it is prepared to appoint a senior figure to start negotiations with the international body on decommissioning once the power-sharing executive between Unionists and Sinn Fein is set up.

18 Nov 1999: Mitchell bids his second "final" farewell to Northern Ireland after unveiling the report on his 10-week review of the peace process.

23 Nov 1999: The Queen delights Unionists by awarding the George Cross to the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

27 Nov 1999: Ulster Unionists' ruling council meets to decide whether to back the devolution deal. Votes Yes.