By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — A lively but at times bitter and bad-tempered debate in the new Stormont Assembly ended with a vote on Monday that supported the deal on cross-border bodies and the size of the proposed Executive which was reached last December between the SDLP and the UUP. The debate took place following the announcement by Secretary of State Mo Mowlam that Westminster will devolve legislative powers to the new Assembly on March 10.
The Assembly’s unexpected vote, a coup for the pro-agreement parties, means that as of Feb. 19 cross-community support for the new institutions could trigger the establishment of a shadow-Executive to include Sinn Fein.
The Ulster Unionists, however, are still adamant this will not happen unless the IRA decommissions some of its weapons, with UUP deputy leader, John Taylor, giving the Agreement only a "50:50" chance of survival.
David Ervine of the PUP also believes the whole Agreement is in danger of collapsing, blaming "macho men" in both the UUP and Sinn Fein for refusing to move on decommissioning.
The Assembly did, though, vote on Monday in favor of the resolution drawn up by the First and Deputy First Ministers designate David Trimble and Seamus Mallon by 74 votes to 27.
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The vote came after the Ulster Unionists and SDLP proposed a "guillotine" on the debate, ending it after just one day instead of the expected three. This sent the Rev. Ian Paisley’s DUP and the UK Unionist Party leader, Robert McCartney, into paroxysms of fury.
Paisley accused the SDLP and UUP of doing a "dirty deal" by guillotining the debate while some of his party were absent from the chamber and said they were putting the "foot of fascism on Ulster’s throat.".
Paisley is also threatening to table a vote of no confidence in the "Presiding Office Designate" (the initial speaker, Lord Alderdice, the former Alliance Party chairman).
Speaking after the vote, on Monday night, Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, said it showed that Trimble was, in fact, in control of and had the support of the vast majority of his party members.
"The overwhelming vote confirms what we have been saying, that Trimble’s position both within his own party and among the unionist people, is secure," Adams said. "He should take strength from the result and build on it.
"The only way to undermine those who are trying to wreck the Good Friday Agreement is by taking on their arguments and defeating them. The anti-Agreement lobby were effectively routed by the pro-Agreement parties."
During the debate, Sinn Fein’s national chairperson, Mitchel McLaughlin, accused the SDLP of doing a "solo run" in signing up to the accord on cross-border bodies with the UUP and that, as a result, it fell short of what nationalists could have achieved.
Denis Haughey of the SDLP rejected this, saying his party had made strenuous efforts to help Sinn Fein "adjust to normal democracy." Haughey also said that while decommissioning was not a precondition to taking seats in the Executive, it remained a central part of the Stormont Agreement.
There was one defection from the Ulster Unionists. Peter Weir, an anti-Agreement assemblyman and one of the so-called "baby barristers" in the UUP who set up the "Union First" ginger group, voted with the DUP and had his party’s whip withdrawn as a penalty.
Robert McCartney claimed that if Sinn Fein was allowed into an Executive without the IRA decommissioning it would play into the hands of the Northern secretary, Mo Mowlam, whom, he claimed, was in favor of a united Ireland.
John Taylor said during the debate it was imperative that the IRA decommissioned and without this Sinn Fein could not take ministerial seats in the Executive. His party was not out to exclude Sinn Fein "out of spite," he said.
McCartney sat next to his erstwhile deputy leader, Cedric Wilson, who was one of four who quit the UKUP in a row over when party members should resign if Sinn Fein got ministerial posts without decommissioning. Their body language spoke volumes. Although they were sitting next door to each other, by dint of swiveling their chairs, they also sat back to back.
After the resolution was passed, Trimble said it cleared the way toward finalizing new institutional structures and finally getting actual devolution on March 10, as stipulated by Mowlam, although he did not budge on decommissioning.
When Mowlam announced this date, the UUP’s initial reaction was frosty. A terse statement said the appointment of the Executive was a matter for the parties, not Mowlam, and that the UUP "resents and will resist any attempt by her to interfere."
Despite their agreement on a timetable for finalizing the new structures, there were signs of increasing tension again between the UUP and SDLP, with John Taylor launching a bitter attack on Mallon on Wednesday.
Taylor accused Mallon of not having the stomach to stand up to Sinn Fein after Mallon said last week that he and the SDLP would not allow the Ulster Unionists to proceed in forming a new government by excluding Sinn Fein.
This had been a bitter blow to the Ulster Unionists, whose strategy appears intended to persuade the SDLP to come to a deal with them by ditching Sinn Fein, if the IRA doesn’t decommission.
Taylor said Mr. Mallon stood accused of not being an honest broker and of being ambivalent about the politics of threat and non-violence. Sinn Fein responded by accusing Taylor of using "arrogant and bullying language" and said the process could not move forward by excluding any party.
Mallon himself reacted angrily, saying Taylor’s comments were "irrational" and insisted his guiding principle was the implementation of the Good Friday agreement. "I’ve spent the last 30 years opposing violence," he said.
Prior to the vote, in a bid to win support away from the UUP, McCartney of the UK Unionists distributed a document to all UUP members, warning of "dangerous times ahead." McCartney has denied he was using scare tactics and said it was his duty to point out the political realities.