Ulster Peace Talks: Tense weeks ahead as plan is put to test

The Next Steps
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THE HISTORIC proposals for decommissioning and devolution outlined by Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern last night means Northern Ireland faces several weeks of potentially tumultuous political events.

While most of the politicians will be catching up with the sleep they missed during the past week, attention this weekend will switch from Stormont to the fields around Portadown, where the annual Orange march to Drumcree parish church is to take place tomorrow. This has already been banned by the Parades Commission, which means that unless the authorities have a last-minute change of heart, protests will again be staged there and elsewhere in Northern Ireland. The fact that the army yesterday erected large-scale fortifications shows the security forces expect trouble.

Although such protests would clearly not be conducive to calm political consideration, the Ulster Unionist party will be holding meetings to decide its response to yesterday's statement from Mr Blair and Mr Ahern.

The loyalist marching season reaches its traditional peak on 12 July, when tens of Orangemen take to the streets. The security forces have major concerns about what might happen on that day, given that major sections of the order have applied to march past the Catholic lower Ormeau area of Belfast. This is meant to be in protest at the banning of the parade at Drumcree where, by that stage, protests might still be going on.

Mr Blair's timetable for government involves a prudent wait until 12 July is out of the way then, assuming the Ulster Unionists are in agreement, convening the Belfast assembly on 15 July. Ministers would then be nominated for the new cross-community executive, with Martin McGuinness and Barbara de Brun as Sinn Fein's representatives.

On the following day Westminster would authorise the transfer of powers to the assembly, coming into effect on 18 July. At somewhere around the same time, Westminster will be asked to pass legislation stating that the assembly's operation will be suspended if either the decommissioning or the devolution is not put into effect.

The International Commission on Decommissioning will meanwhile be setting in train the arrangement for either receiving weaponry or for verifying that amounts of it have been put beyond use.

Mr Blair expects actual decommissioning to take place within weeks of the executive assuming power.

The act of devolution means that new north-south and British-Irish institutions, which have been made ready in the course of the past year, will become "live."

New arrangements will also come into effect dealing with issues such as equality, justice, human rights and a rundown in security force activity.

In the assembly, ministers for Northern Ireland's 10 new government departments are allocated according to party strengths. This means that the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP would each be entitled to three ministerial seats, while Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists would have two seats each.

The Ulster Unionists are the biggest assembly party, with 28 seats, followed by the SDLP with 24, then the Democratic Unionists (20), and Sinn Fein (18).

All of this means that many Northern Ireland politicians may have to think again about their holiday plans: political activity usually goes into virtual suspension following 12 July, but this year the agenda will be a particularly full one.