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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 October 2007, 20:32 GMT 21:32 UK
Tensions laid bare in UDA debate
Martina Purdy
By Martina Purdy
BBC NI political correspondent

Margaret Ritchie
Margaret Ritchie told the assembly the project could not be justified
There would be a fudge - that's what some of the minister's political opponents and Northern Ireland Office sources were predicting.

Word spread through Stormont that Margaret Ritchie was preparing to make a statement on the UDA-linked scheme, the Conflict Transformation Initiative.

How wrong they were. Instead of fudge, we got Mourne rock.

The SDLP minister - characterised by the UDA as being too aggressive - dropped a political grenade, and earned a reputation as "the Terminator".

As she cut the 1.2m funding, Ms Ritchie challenged the loyalist paramilitaries not to turn back - and she declared to all just how much pressure she had been under in recent days.

Peter Robinson characterised her statement as the most absurd, if not bizarre, parliamentary experience for many generations
"There has been a sustained campaign of briefing against me and attempts to destabilise those around me."

Who was she talking about?

That's a story for another day: the big story on Tuesday was the fracture in the Executive.

Peter Robinson, the DUP finance minister, showed his displeasure at the minister's announcement.

While putting on record that the assembly supported her aims of bringing the UDA towards peace and democracy, Mr Robinson characterised her statement as the most absurd, if not bizarre, parliamentary experience for many generations.

And snapping at would-be interrupters that he was involved in a "point of order", he declared her decision contrary to a process set out by the Executive, and inconsistent with the advice offered by the department's legal office and senior counsel.

As Margaret Ritchie sat frowning at him, he went on: "I believe her decision is also a breach of the ministerial code and pledge of office."

While her ruling was significant, far more important was the effect it had on the Executive

This withering attack included a request to the Speaker for advice on how to proceed.

Willie Hay declared a 20-minute suspension, which actually lasted more than half an hour.

When the Speaker returned from a series of meeting he the told the assembly there was no breach of its rules, but did report that the head of the civil service, Nigel Hamilton, had concerns about the legality of the decision, as did other ministers.

Then followed another dramatic session where the minister faced a series of questions.

Sinn Fein's Caral Ni Chuilin led the questions, asking whether the minister had funded the UDA and if she would continue to do so in future. The question was also repeated by a number of Sinn Fein MLAs.

UDA gunman
The UDA said it would decommission in its own time
This prompted a scathing attack from SDLP leader Mark Durkan, questioning what support Ms Ritchie had got from that party's ministers over the issue.

Sinn Fein's Raymond McCartney responded, accusing the SDLP of confusing criticism and clarification.

The only praise for the decision came from the SDLP and the Alliance Party.

While her ruling was significant, far more important was the effect it had on the Executive.

Tensions at the heart of government have been laid bare.

Ms Ritchie in fact poked fun at Mr Robinson, when he later asked her a question: "I'm not sure whether he's asking this question as a minister of finance or the person who likes to think he controls the Executive."


At least the will of one minister has prevailed, and that is what is so interesting in terms of the dynamic of this administration.

The DUP made much of the fact that this Executive would be different.

In its Getting It Right 2007 manifesto, the DUP stated that the Executive and assembly would prevail over the will of one minister and that there would be more coherent, cohesive government where ministers would no longer be able to act alone.

Is that why we have Mr Robinson accusing the minister of breaching the Executive process and the ministerial code and pledge of office?

The exact nature of the breach was not spelled out. Was it not decided at the Executive that this was a matter for Ms Ritchie?

If Ms Ritchie has breached the code, then this spat is far from over.

But if it turns out she hasn't done anything wrong, questions may well be asked about just how much has changed between the 1998 Agreement and the 2006 St Andrew's one.

How UDA cash carrot was pulled
16 Oct 07 |  Northern Ireland
Minister stops loyalist project
16 Oct 07 |  Northern Ireland
Loyalist warning on UDA arms move
08 Oct 07 |  Northern Ireland
UDA takes steps towards disarming
06 Oct 07 |  Northern Ireland
UDA won't be pushed on arms deal
05 Oct 07 |  Northern Ireland

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