The devolution of Ulster: Committee rules keep check on Assembly ministers

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THE NEW form of government for Northern Ireland is the product of a highly ingenious piece of constitution-making designed to make the administration as inclusive as possible.

It has also been devised to cope with the lack of trust in the relationships among the four major parties. The Ulster Unionists, the Democratic Unionists, Sinn Fein and the SDLP, together holding 90 of the assembly's 108 seats - will have a role in government and opposition.

Beneath the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and Seamus Mallon of the nationalist SDLP, is an executive made up of 10 departmental ministers. The Ulster Unionists and SDLP each have three seats on the executive, and Sinn Fein and the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party have two each.

The ministers will be kept in check by powerful committees. Each of the 10 departmental heads will be shadowed by a committee headed by members of different parties. For example, Martin McGuinness, the Education Minister, will answer to a committee with an Ulster Unionist chairman and a Democratic Unionist deputy chairman. Nine other members will be drawn from a range of assembly parties.

Committees have been given scrutiny, policy development and consultative functions, a role in initiating legislation and the power to summon people and papers and to hold inquiries and make reports.

This is designed to allay any suspicion that ministers might be tempted into discrimination or partiality. The whole system is supposed to be imbued with a spirit of equality and mutual respect. Legislation put before the assembly will need to attract support from nationalists and Unionists to be passed.