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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 September, 2004, 11:20 GMT 12:20 UK
The key political issues
Talks are taking place over the future of the assembly

Talks with the political parties and the British and Irish Governments are continuing in an effort to conclude a deal which would see the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

At the end of the Leeds Castle negotiations, a number of key issues to pave the way for a settlement had still not been resolved. BBC Northern Ireland political editor Mark Devenport explains where the main sticking points now lie.

Accountability: The DUP want the rules at Stormont changed so ministers cannot make controversial decisions without having to answer to members of the assembly. Under the DUP proposals, 30 or more assembly members (MLAs) could launch a "petition of concern" which would freeze a ministerial decision until it got cross community support.

The DUP says this would be a safeguard against policies which don't command widespread support, but nationalists view it as unionists seeking to exercise majority rule by a back door.

Mark Durkan
The SDLP say they had to fight a rearguard action
Decommissioning: The British and Irish Governments believe the issue of IRA arms can finally be resolved. Although there's been no IRA statement confirming this, official sources indicated that republicans have offered complete disarmament by the end of the year.

Unionists have demanded "transparent" decommissioning, but they may have to settle for an inventory of the weapons destroyed. However, the IRA is unlikely to deliver on disarmament until it knows a comprehensive deal can be achieved.

Future of the IRA: The British and Irish Governments also have an understanding with senior republicans that the IRA will end activity like punishment beatings, targeting and procuring weapons. It's believed the words on offer will effectively "stand down" the paramilitary group. Unionists have been told this is on offer, but, as with arms, any IRA statement is almost certainly conditional on a wider deal.

Policing and Justice: The Leeds Castle negotiations covered the future transfer of policing and justice powers from direct rule British ministers to locally elected politicians. This is Sinn Fein's price for pledging its support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

In principle, unionists don't object to devolving policing and justice. But the DUP say the circumstances must be right, and the precise timetable for the transfer of powers and the structure of any new policing and justice departments has not yet been resolved.

The DUP says it favours practical north-south cooperation
The DUP says it favours practical north-south cooperation

Good Friday Agreement Institutions: Apart from the executive and the assembly, the Good Friday Agreement created a number of cross border bodies. For nationalists, they are important as a symbol of their all-Ireland identity. The DUP says it favours practical north-south cooperation, but will put the brakes on anything it regards as politically motivated. At Leeds Castle, the SDLP say they had to fight a rearguard action against proposals to run down the cross-border bodies.

DUP and SF working together in power: If Stormont is revived, the two top jobs of first and deputy first minister should go to the DUP and Sinn Fein, as the two biggest parties on either side of the communal divide. The DUP have what some call a "cultural inability" to vote for a Sinn Fein candidate like Martin McGuinness.

So other systems are under discussion, including picking all ministers on a proportional basis, then having MLAs vote for the entire executive. This may be adopted, but pro-Agreement politicians say other DUP proposals to divide the responsibilities of the two top ministers run counter to the spirit of partnership which many considered central to the Good Friday Agreement.

On-the-runs and demilitarisation: The government made it clear that the return of paramilitary fugitives and its plans for troop cuts were not up for discussion at Leeds Castle. This firm statement provided some cover for the DUP which has always insisted it is opposed to the plans. It also provided assurance for republicans that if the IRA engaged in "acts of completion" the government would deliver on both these matters irrespective of any unionist opposition.






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