A complex system to fix a complex problem

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By David McKittrick

By David McKittrick

28 November 1999

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.