Government suspends Northern Ireland Assembly

Republicans and Unionists were yesterday given a further six weeks to reach a deal on guns, the Government using a technicality to create more time for talks rather than shutting down the Belfast assembly.

The legal device means the Good Friday Agreement will be suspended over the weekend but reinstated by Monday. The six weeks that follow will see yet another attempt to sort out the guns question and stabilise the assembly.

The choices facing the Government were either a long-term suspension or calling fresh assembly elections, which were thought certain to produce results weakening the political centre.

Both London and Dublin will be hoping to bank and build on the progress which they believe has been made over the past six weeks of negotiations, most particularly on the issues of decommissioning and policing.

Although Sinn Fein protested against the move, both Dublin and the nationalist SDLP appear to share the Government's view that it was the best of the three legally available options, and the one most likely to avert catastrophe.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, John Reid, and the Irish Foreign Minister, Brian Cowen, are to meet in Belfast today for a review. Dr Reid signalled yesterday that he hoped the suspension would be short, lasting perhaps only 24 hours. Mr Cowen stressed that point, urging that the suspension should be as short as possible, with the assembly and executive restored without delay.

A quick technical suspension of this type had been proposed by David Trimble's Ulster Unionists. Mr Trimble departed for a holiday in Austria yesterday, signalling that he did not expect serious business to be done in the next few weeks.

Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein took exception to the suspension move, alleging that the Government had "capitulated" to the Unionist party. He described suspension as a totally undemocratic breach of the Agreement and an attack on the rights of nationalists and republicans.

Republicans have a theological objection to suspension, contending that it does not conform with the terms of the Agreement. Dr Reid replied that "a one-day suspension on a Saturday in August" hardly amounted to "grounds for uproar".

Dr Reid confirmed that he intended to publish detailed papers on proposed policing changes and a review of the criminal justice system. These documents will be an important part of resumed negotiations, since Sinn Fein has demanded to see them.

The IRA move on decommissioning earlier this week, when the organisation suggested an acceptable though still-secret method of dealing with its weapons, was made in the context of negotiations which included policing, criminal justice and other issues.

The brief suspension will not affect the actual workings of the assembly, which is at the moment in recess. Northern Ireland's 10 departmental ministers will lose power over the weekend, but will be given it back again by Monday.

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