Stormont members take their seats

Northern Ireland assembly members take their seats again today
Northern Ireland assembly members take their seats again today

Members of the Northern Ireland assembly today took their seats for the first time since October 2002 in a new bid to restore devolved power.

They have until November to agree on a first minister, a deputy first minister and an executive to govern the province under the terms of the Good Friday agreement.

If they fail, the assembly members will have their salaries and allowances withdrawn, the elections planned for next year will be cancelled, and the British and Irish governments will take joint control of Northern Ireland.

However, the first signs from the key players were not good, with the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) insisting it was not prepared to form a power-sharing government with Sinn Fein.

Leader Ian Paisley, who as head of the largest political party in Northern Ireland is the key player in the peace process, also denounced Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain as an "apologist" for Sinn Fein and the IRA, and attempting a "whitewash".

This morning, Mr Hain said the paramilitary organisation had undergone an "extraordinary change" since renouncing violence last summer, and insisted Sinn Fein was "moving on policing".

"I think it's different from the past when promises made have not been kept. I do think there's now a real commitment on behalf of everyone," he told Today.

But Mr Paisley told reporters inside the Stormont assembly: "Let me make very clear that this party will not have any association in government with any party that is linked with terrorism, linked with murders, linked to crimes and will not support the police."

He said the DUP was prepared to "get the democratic processes going" in Northern Ireland, but insisted the creation of a shadow assembly, with Mr Hain still having power to make decisions but with cooperation of the assembly, was the best way to do this.

Speaking shortly afterwards, however, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said that while he was "pleased to be here", his party would only be concerned with choosing an executive over the next six months, and not trying to affect policy in the province.

Sinn Fein was "very, very focused that this would not be a talking shop, not a shadow assembly - its express purpose is to get formation of the executive", he said.

Mr Adams added: "If anyone thinks for one second that Peter Hain is going to reverse cuts in education and not impose water charges on the back of what's said in here. I think Ian Paisley also knows that's not [likely]."

Since the assembly was suspended three and a half years ago over allegations of an IRA spy ring, it has cost £78 million to maintain, a situation that the British government has insisted cannot continue.

Last month, Tony Blair said that proceeding under the terms of the Good Friday agreement "is what will best allow Northern Ireland to move on and prosper", and urged assembly members to agree on a new executive.


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