Six weeks to rescue the Ulster peace process

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Nothern Ireland politicians and the British and Irish governments now face a six-week period of manoeuvring and negotiations aimed at saving the Belfast Assembly and rescuing the peace process.

The device of being able to call a one-day suspension of the Good Friday Agreement, thus allowing a further six weeks for negotiations, is the work of one or more particularly cunning minds. Someone either buried that provision deep in the legalese of the Agreement, reckoning it might some day be of use, or else someone more recently discovered that its terms had created a useful little loophole.

Either way, it means that the Belfast Assembly and the Agreement's other creations do not have to be suspended indefinitely at this point. Last year the Assembly survived a suspension which lasted for some months, but a lengthy repetition is considered unhealthy.

The move also means the Government does not have to call fresh Assembly elections. The idea of calling elections is said to have appealed to Tony Blair at several points, but other counsels have prevailed.

The last Westminster general election saw considerable advances made by Sinn Fein and The Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists at the expense of the Ulster Unionists and John Hume's SDLP.

A continuation of this trend might create a new landscape in the Assembly. If, for example, Sinn Fein and the DUP emerged as the two largest parties, the nominees for First and Deputy First Minister could be Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley. Since there is no real chance of these two individuals and parties co-operating with each other, such an outcome would be a recipe for disagreement, stalemate and instability. An election cannot be ruled out in the future, perhaps if the next six weeks do not deliver a breakthrough. But it would be viewed as something close to a last throw of the dice.

So instead of thinking of electioneering, the pro-Agreement parties now have to anticipate fresh negotiations in the next six weeks. The word "fresh" is particularly inappropriate, however, since many in the political world are frazzled and fraught due to missing their holidays.

It may be that a break is anticipated before really serious talks begin again.

In the meantime, the Northern Ireland executive will remain in operation over the next six weeks, once this weekend's suspension has come and gone. The 10 departmental ministers have worked on over the past six weeks and will continue to do so.

But the post of First Minister has been vacant since David Trimble resigned on 1 July. It will remain so, with a colleague, Sir Reg Empey, presumably continuing to exercise some of his functions as a stand-in.

In the meantime the British and Irish governments will be turning their minds to working out the formula for the next set of talks. They have in the past done most of the work in Northern Ireland but have occasionally resorted to shipping negotiating teams elsewhere, generally to stately homes in England.

They may decide again that a change of scenery, allied to a soothing holiday, may help create the most favourable conditions for the next attempt at a breakthrough.

A troubled democracy

June 1998: Assembly is elected. Ulster Unionists win 28 seats, the SDLP 24 and Sinn Fein 18.

16 February 1999: The Assembly votes to accept a report on the devolution of powers from Westminster.

15 July 1999: Assembly meeting to nominate ministers for the executive collapses as the Ulster Unionists refuse to attend because of Sinn Fein's stance on decommissioning. Seamus Mallon resigns as Deputy First Minister.

18 November 1999: George Mitchell reveals details of a plan to set up a power-sharing government.

29 November 1999: The Assembly meets and Seamus Mallon is reinstated as deputy first minister, 10 ministers are nominated to the Executive.

1 December 1999: Power is passed from Westminster to Belfast at midnight.

2 December 1999: The new Northern Ireland Executive meets for the first time. The IRA announces it has appointed a representative to the decommissioning body.

3 February 2000:Secretary of State Peter Mandelson says he will suspend Assembly if there is no IRA decommissioning.

11 February 2000: No deal is struck on IRA arms decommissioning and Mr Mandelson signs the order to suspend the assembly.

6 May 2000: The IRA releases a statement saying it is ready to begin a process that would "completely and verifiably" put its arms beyond use.

8 May 2000: Mr Mandelson announces he will bring forward an order to restore the assembly.

29 May 2000: Power is restored.

8 May 2001 Mr Trimble tells the UUP he will resign as First Minister of the assembly on 1 July if there has been no progress from IRA on decommissioning.

1 July 2001: Mr Trimble resigns, triggering a six-week period in which to resolve the impasse.

1 August 2001: British and Irish governments unveil a package to break the deadlock.

9 August 2001: IRA confirms it has had eight meetings with General de Chastelain to discuss its arms. Ulster Unionists continue to insist on actual decommissioning.

10 August 2001: Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid announces assembly will be suspended.