Ulster assembly option

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PLANS FOR a new Northern Ireland assembly, exercising a range of powers devolved by the Government, are being considered by British officials. An assembly is one option for the fresh talks on the future of the province promised by John Major last week.

Draft proposals for an assembly in which some powerful committee chairmanships would be allotted to the nationalist minority are expected to be revived by the Government. The plan would face formidable obstacles but, if successful, would restore the first elements of political normality to Northern Ireland since the 1970s.

If it fails, ministers could consider a sweeping review of local government in the province, handing powers to new, and possibly much larger, councils.

Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, gave a clear hint last week that the Government would, for the first time, draw up its own proposals for the talks which it wants to resume after the local elections on 19 May. Hitherto it has insisted that it wanted only to act as an honest broker between the Northern Ireland parties.

The talks would have more modest initial goals than those held last year, concentrating on internal devolution and looser links between the two Irelands on such issues as tourism, agriculture and fisheries.

One option is to revive the plan - discussed intensely during the talks which broke up inconclusively last November - for an 85-member power-sharing assembly, with senior politicians from both communities acting as heads of existing Northern Ireland departments.

Unionists say openly, and British officials tacitly, that wide agreement was reached on the plan, but that it was finally aborted because of objections from John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party. The SDLP denies that such an agreement was reached.

The Prime Minister followed up Sir Patrick's remarks, made in an interview with the Irish Times, by saying that last year's talks had made 'tremendous progress - more I think than many people realised.' Mr Major's off-the- cuff remarks are seen as referring to the 'Strand One' talks which dealt with internal political arrangements for Northern Ireland.

Sir Patrick places high hopes on the desire for political progress expressed by Dick Spring, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs. Sir Patrick said last week that his understanding was that the Irish government was not now seeking direct involvement in talks on internal devolution.

But there will be serious doubt in Northern Ireland over whether the SDLP will agree to a deal which does not involve Dublin. During last year's talk, Mr Hume was seeking a six-man executive which would have included three 'commissioners' appointed respectively by London, Dublin and Brussels. Counter-proposals in a draft plan were for a three-man consultative body composed of locally based politicians.

Another serious problem is that Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, has said he will not return to the talks until the Irish Republic says explicitly it will drop Articles II and III of its constitution, which claim jurisdiction over Northern Ireland. But ministers believe that the DUP's share of the popular vote may decline in the local elections, forcing a rethink of its hard-line opposition to any talks.