Category: Archive

Assembly begins difficult task of self-government

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Anne Cadwallader

STORMONT — There were historic scenes at the old home of the Northern Ireland parliament Monday as every conceivable shade of political opinion met in one room to begin hashing out a program for self-government.

The ground-breaking first meeting of the Northern Ireland Assembly came just four days after another significant development: the first face-to-face meeting of David Trimble, the UUP leader, and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein.

The specter of decommissioning hung over both meetings, with Trimble still refusing to countenance sharing power with Sinn Fein until the IRA has begun actual disarming.

The historic developments signaled the end of the shadow-boxing of the summer recess and held out hope that serious business may yet overtake the political grandstanding that followed the Drumcree crisis in July, when Orange Order marchers were prevented from marching through a nationalist area.

In addition, the assembly met within three days of the early release of the first set of paramilitary prisoners from the Maze jail, with at least 200 more expected to be freed by the end of next month.

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The assembly kicked off with some familiar arguments over the flying of the Union Jack over Stormont during President Clinton’s visit.

There were also minor spats over the location of the assembly in the old Stormont building and the use of the Irish language in assembly debates. Unionists want Ullans (Ulster Scots) to have parity with Irish, although very few of them — if any — speak it.

Adams asked that the assembly be sensitive to the use of emblems and symbols, so as to foster mutual. He acknowledged that unionists valued the Union Jack but said his party did not hold it in equal esteem.

In his inaugural address to the assembly, First Minister Trimble said all 108 members were "embarking upon one of the most novel and challenging journeys in the annals of democratic arrangements."

The SDLP’s Seamus Mallon, the deputy first minister, said he had a greater sense of hope and opportunity than at any other occasion in his life. The mood of the people, he said, was to put the past behind them and resolve conflicts.

Last Thursday, both Adams and Trimble were clearly aware of the historic nature of their first meeting. Adams quoted Abraham Lincoln when he spoke about "binding up the wounds" of the nation.

Trimble referred to the statue of the first unionist prime minister, Sir James Craig, on the staircase behind him, saying he’d spoken to Eamon de Valera, then on the run as leader of Sinn Fein in 1921, while the troubles were still in train.

Trimble said Craig had then also entered into a series of arguments with Michael Collins — clearly an attempt to draw parallels with the Treaty and to persuade his followers that his meeting with Adams was not unprecedented.

Trimble said he had met and worked with a range of people in his political life, not all of them angels. Adams said Trimble was a man he could and would do business with. No problem was intractable, he said.

There was no handshake between the two leaders, but first names were used. Both men said their meeting was businesslike in tone. It was certainly one not many could have imagined would take place even a few weeks ago.

Meanwhile, four members of the Ulster Unionist Party have resigned in protest at the party’s direction in the peace process. The four, all opposed to the Stormont Agreement, have formed a new party, the United Unionist Assembly Party.

The potential for a split and realignment still lies within the unionist family, with many back-benchers resisting the idea of sharing power with Sinn Fein in any form before IRA decommissioning.

Also this week, Sinn Fein announced its front bench assembly spokespersons. The party is entitled to two ministries in the power-sharing executive, although it’s not known yet what responsibilities they will have.

It’s thought the two ministers will be Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brun, although Mitchel McLoughlin, who has never had IRA affiliation, may serve instead of McGuinness, whose IRA background is well known. Adams will be the party’s assembly leader, with McGuinness responsible for conferring with the decommissioning body.

Making the announcement during a break in the party’s ard comhairle meeting in County Donegal, Adams said the assembly was an opportunity for national reconciliation and a gateway to a new, shared and independent Ireland.

Also this week, the first prisoners were freed under the early-release scheme. The republicans released were Sean Patrick McGuigan, who’d served five years of a 12-year sentence for causing grievous bodily harm and had always protested his innocence, Louie McNally, from Dungannon, who had served 10 years of a 22-year sentence for conspiracy to murder, and Gerard Magee, from Antrim, who was serving the 10th year of a 20-year sentence for conspiracy to murder.

The loyalist prisoners released were Matthew McCormick, who’d served six years of a 14-year term for conspiracy to murder, Gary Hall, who was six years into a 14-year term for attempted murder, and Daniel Annesley who’d served half of a five-year sentence for blackmail.

This week also is the deadline for submissions to the North’s "Independent Commission on Policing" which is due to bring forward proposals on a new police force next summer.

The newly appointed English-born RUC deputy chief constable, Colin Cramphorn, said the force was facing a period of "major change," which prompted Gregory Campbell of the DUP to call his comments "ominous."

But Adams said changes and reform of the RUC were unacceptable. The force had to go and be replaced by a new policing service, he said.

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