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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 May 2003, 17:43 GMT 18:43 UK
When the assembly worked

Photo of Stormont Castle, Northern Ireland
Stormont: the driveway to peace?
Before it finally ground to a halt in October 2002 the work of the Northern Ireland Assembly was hampered by suspensions and squabbling.

The Good Friday Agreement of April 1998 laid the foundations of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Elections were to be by the Single Transferable Vote System, which best served an electorate whose loyalties were split between several parties.

Central to the Agreement was the need to make the the 108 seat assembly run on a cross-community basis, so assembly members had to designate themselves as Nationalist, Unionist or Other and decisions required agreement from a significant percentage of each group.

When the assembly met for the first time on 1 July 1998 - six days after elections - it was without legislative power.

There was no meeting to appoint ministers until a year later and it was boycotted by the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) because they said: "those associated with terrorists should not be allowed to sit in Government".

Executive delay

After a four month delay the d'Hondt voting system - assuring representation for the smaller parties - was used to put together the 10-member Executive.

The UUP and Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) got three ministers apiece, the DUP and Sinn Fein two each.

One of the key appointments was Martin McGuinness as Education Minister. Unionists were not happy that the former IRA commander had got the role but McGuinness argued that he would govern for all children.

The decommissioning hurdle

Devolution operated from 2 December 1999 but the issue of decommissioning had not been resolved.

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson suspended the Assembly for the first time on 11 February 2000. He said there was "no choice" without the IRA stepping back from its refusal to disarm.

The power-sharing executive was reinstalled at the end of April 2000 after David Trimble secured the backing of his party and the IRA made a statement about putting its arms beyond use.

This time devolution remained in operation for a year before David Trimble threatened to resign as First Minister because of a lack of actual decommissioning. He enacted his threat on 1 July.

Playing for time

Fresh elections were needed if a new First Minister was not appointed within six weeks. The new Northern Ireland Secretary - since January 2001 - John Reid suspended devolution and restored it 24 hours later to retrigger the six week countdown.

But he could not rely on technical devices forever and in September 2001, announced the assembly would be restored. There was, he said, "a general sense of finality".

A frantic period followed including Unionist attempts to expel Sinn Fein from the chamber. When they failed the Ulster Unionist ministers resigned - triggering a seven day deadline.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams announced he had urged the IRA to make a "groundbreaking move" to save the peace process. Soon there was independent confirmation that the IRA has put some of its arms beyond use.

This was the signal that David Trimble has been waiting for and he saved the Executive from collapse by re-nominating his party's ministers.

But, in another twist in the tale, two members of the UUP voted against him, thwarting his bid to become First Minister. The Alliance Party redesignated themselves as Unionists to provide Trimble with the cross-party votes he required under the rules of the Assembly.

Trimble was returned as First Minister with a new deputy in the SDLP's Mark Durkan. In an unedifying end to this gripping chapter in the assembly's history scuffles broke out between members outside the chamber after his re-election.

Achievements

Following the turbulence of 2001 the early months of last year saw the business of the assembly proceed relatively smoothly and they got some real work done.

The assembly compared well with the Scottish Parliament in terms of the number of bills it passed over the early period of its existence.

The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill passed through the Assembly and went on to Westminster.

For former Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid, one of the "finest achievements" of the Assembly was the new Northern Ireland Policing Board.

And Education Minister Martin McGuinness made the decision to abolish the 11-plus just days before the end of devolution last October. An act the unionists described as "political opportunism".

When foot-and-mouth disease hit Northern Ireland in April 2001 some feel the quick reaction of the assembly was vital. In the absence of the assembly there are complaints that there is a loss of local interest and accountability.

Break down

The Sinn Fein Offices at Stormont were raided as part of a police investigation into intelligence gathering by republicans on 4 October 2002.

And David Trimble again threatened to quit the executive and the spy ring allegations speeded up the process.

The First Minister gave a seven day deadline and demand: either Sinn Fein goes or his party the Ulster Unionists would pull out.

With collapse imminent John Reid authorised another suspension of the assembly on 14 October.

Shortly before the assembly collapsed Tony Blair urged the IRA that, "It's time for acts of completion".

Since October the province has been run directly from Westminster by Northern Ireland Office Ministers.

Elections to the assembly were scheduled for the 29 May. But without a breakthrough in the peace process the British Government made the decision to suspend them.

They decided that assurances from Sinn Fein did not go far enough. In an unlikely alliance the DUP and Sinn Fein have both called for a June election. The government's latest legislation has not included a target date.

SEE ALSO
How the system works - Northern Ireland
25 May 99 |  Voting in the UK
The d'Hondt system explained
28 Nov 99 |  Northern Ireland


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