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BBC Ireland correspondent, Denis Murray
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Thursday, 2 December, 1999, 19:08 GMT
The quest for peace in Northern Ireland

Denis Murray, has reported for the BBC on the affairs of Northern Ireland for almost two decades.

Devolution week
The hard road ahead
The Stormont ministers
Old foes share power
The Assembly explained
Amid rising hopes that a new government in Northern Ireland will signal an end to the violence, Denis Murray will take your questions on this week's extraordinary events.

Sarah Pierce, Cheshire: Is this in your opinion a real turning point or just another false dawn.

Denis Murray: I don't think it's a false dawn because I have believed since the Good Friday Agreement that even if it wasn't implemented then something very similar, within a year or two, would be put in place. There was an awful feel of permanency about the changes that were made in relations between London and Dublin in Dublin earlier today.
There has always been an air of permanency about the Assembly as well, even when it wasn't sitting much because the talks were deadlocked and at stalemate. Whether or not it turns into a stalemate, I think we will find out in January or February when the question of decommissioning of weapons raises its head again.

Ian McLaughlin, England: Do you believe the IRA will have begun decommissioning by the time the Official Unionists reconvene in February?

Denis Murray: Very hard to say. Part of the equation in all of this is that Sinn Fein has a real chance of taking up to six seats in the Irish Republic at the next general election. Now a party of that size could well hold the balance of power in a divided parliament. There hasn't been a single party majority government in the Republic since the late '70s, it's all been coalitions. That would actually put them not just at the heart of government in Belfast but at the heart of government in Dublin as well.

The feeling I've heard from some Sinn Fein people is that the electorate in the Republic simply would not forgive them for not decommissioning, however we've heard nothing yet from the IRA that says yes we are going to. The Unionists have accepted that the appointing of a go-between with the International decommissioning body is evidence of the start of a decommissioning process. But the IRA have not yet said we will decommission something by the end of January.

Peter Frost, South Africa: In a nutshell, what can still go wrong?

Denis Murray: One thing that could go wrong, I heard this said from a commentator who is South African, an academic who has worked extensively on the peace process here and in South Africa, Adrian Gelker. He said that one of the difficulties in South Africa was the ministers in the coalition government, the transition government, were inclined to concentrate on their own ministries rather than co-operate at a full executive level.

Here you've got the problem of having the two Democratic Unionist members, that's Ian Paisley's party, who will not sit in the cabinet. The first meeting of the cabinet is this afternoon and they will not be there. Adrian Gelker was warning that if you can't have co-operation at a very high level you can have paralysis.

What can go wrong is that it can go into a state of paralysis, what can go wrong is that the IRA doesn't decommission and the Ulster Unionists walk out of it, those are the obvious things. What could go wrong is that the idea that by working together trust builds further, there is always the possibility of a row and trust diminishing.

Martin Hanna, England (formerly NI): Can Denis explain what each of the 8 ministers can achieve with or without the approval of the others? Is each one acting according to their own party's political manifesto or are the posts, as I imagine it, only token roles where the mundane tasks are just rubber stamping exercises and the more contentious points have to be approved by all 8 ministers or even the assembly.

Denis Murray: The contentious points have to be agreed by the Assembly, I would have to have my copy of the Good Friday Agreement with me, but essentially if there are contentious issues you have a weighted majority where it's something like 60% of the house voting yes and 60% of the both communities voting yes. Another way of doing it is having 40% of both communities and 50% of the house on less contentious ones. You need 30 signatures for a motion to be taken that way otherwise there are simple majorities.

I don't think the ministers themselves have worked that out yet. They have to write a programme for government. Since you have so many disparate parties, and because it's not a voluntary coalition, of course you could have people pulling in opposite directions. But we don't for instance know yet about Sinn Fein's Health Minister - part of her brief is the proposed closure of a lot of small town hospitals, which are general hospitals, and which the logic of medical science says should be closed, and have large regional units which are very big hospitals indeed. Now there's a lot of opposition in the local areas to having these hospitals close, and some of them are in areas where there is a very big Sinn Fein vote.

Now I don't think the ministers have yet sort of grasped the nettle on that one, I'm not suggesting they're avoiding it, I think they're really only just starting to get their heads around it, partly because of the pace of events. It's certainly not a rubber stamping exercise. I think there will be heated debates to quote Mrs Merton, within the cabinet and between the parties on lots of issues.

Eric Spence, Scotland: I am obviously delighted to see NI's politicians working together and making decisions for the benefit for all citizens across the divide. However, I worry that extremists from both sides will continue to try and disrupt the process, particularly during the Millennium frenzy. Does the new executive have any responsibility for security in the province and what safeguards have been put in place?

Denis Murray: It doesn't have responsibility for security, that's one of the things they call reserved powers, one of the powers that stays with the Northern Ireland Secretary and the Northern Ireland Office. I think the governments and the parties agreed it would be too difficult for an involuntary coalition government to deal with security.

For instance, the Unionist members, both parties, want to see not much change in the RUC and Sinn Fein want to see it scrapped and start from scratch with a new police force. Now with that kind of attitude you could hardly expect them to run security. There was enough of a shock when Martin McGuinness became Minister of Education!

I think ultimately, if it all works, they will end up with responsibility for security, as in they won't have responsibility for the army but they may well have responsibility for law and order, for policing.

J L Nka, Botswana: What does devolution mean in practical terms? Does it mean London will lose absolute power over Northern Ireland?

Denis Murray: First of all it means Northern Ireland stays part of the United Kingdom. The Republicans who want a united Ireland, with a central government in Dublin and no government in Belfast, they see this as a sort of transitional phase, no one else does really. But everyone has agreed that while there's gain there's also pain, so the Republicans have settled for what they've got here. So it's a not in question that Northern Ireland will become part of an independent, all Ireland republic, so London retains control in that sense.

There's no tax raising powers from devolution at the moment, which means that the ministers here will spend money that's allocated by the treasury in London with the agreement of the Cabinet. But in every other way an awful lot of the responsibilities held by the junior ministers in Northern Ireland, nearly all of them have gone to the devolved ministers. It is full executive government.

Andy Lehrer, Canada:

Sinn Fein MPs do not take their seats at Westminster due to their refusal to take the oath to the Queen. Why are they able to take their seats at Stormont? Does the Stormont oath not include reference to the Queen?

Denis Murray: I cant remember the exact wording of it but I think it is an affirmation to carry out the duties. Also its not true that they don't take out their duties because they don't like the oath. People should understand this. Republicans used to have an absolute of faith that you didn't sit in partionist parliaments and also not Westminster because it was a hated British Parliament and a sign of oppression. So they have travelled a very long way but it's still very difficult for them to sit in Westminster.

Regarding, Stormont the Republicans say they are reclaiming their right by going into that Assembly.

Joseph Hart, Australia: Apparently the Catholic population is set to become the majority in Northern Ireland within the next 10-20 years. Do you think there will be a united Ireland within your lifetime?

Denis Murray: I'm not sure I believe that. The demographic trends that are predicted say that it'll be about 50/50 or with a small Catholic majority in about 2041. That is a very long time away and we've no idea what the atmosphere's going to be like.

The biggest thing here is not physical partition, it's the partition of the mind. You cannot force people who feel themselves to be British to live in an Irish state. The principle of consent is that there will be no change in that status till the majority of the people in Northern Ireland say it will be changed.

P Parker, UK: Is George Mitchell the unsung hero who quietly slipped away when the groundwork was laid? How did he manage to bang heads together?

Denis Murray: He wasn't the unsung hero, I don't think, everyone praised him to the skies for his role and rightly so, and he did it because he didn't bang heads together. I did an interview with him and he said when he got the parties together, he said the atmosphere was full of recrimination, very bitter, and every meeting would start with everyone waving that morning' s newspaper saying "You said this" but "you said that". He said he felt he had to let them get this out of their system. Central to this was the movement to the US Ambassador's residence in London, because instead of sitting round a table you were sitting on chintzy sofas with your cuppa on the coffee table, You could go out in the garden and talk to a bloke from the other side without it being an act of political treachery.

He is not the unsung hero, he's a real hero and he slipped away very quietly because he's that kind of person and because he came here for a few weeks five years and he's still here in 1999!

Zoe Houghton, a media student in Luton, England: I would like to ask for your opinion on the media representations of Northern Ireland over the last thirty years.

Denis Murray: I'm going to take a biased view on this obviously because I'm part of the media. What it is chiefly accused of, is that the network news (in other words the One, Six and Nine O'Clock news) necessarily for a long time we were telling the death and destruction and the absolute lack of politics story and we were criticised for never telling any good news about the place. My answer always was and is, as far as I'm concerned, there is neither bad news or good news, there's just news.

One of the things about Northern Ireland and the media is this. In the early years of the troubles, broadcasters in particular struggled to cope with it, because nobody had ever had to broadcast in a divided society in the United Kingdom before.

There have been lots of difficulties over the years but really I think broadcasters have had to invent a new way of dealing with broadcasting in a divided society. I can't think of any broadcasting reporter who's been biased in any way. Do we make mistakes? Hell yes and boy do people ring us up when we make mistakes!

I must say on behalf of my colleagues in BBC Northern Ireland I think they've done a stunningly good job in extraordinary difficult circumstances for 30 years, and that goes for Ulster Television and RT as well.

Andrew Denny, UK: Denis, with the settlement, how will your job change now? And if so, how?

Denis Murray: I keep getting asked that and I kind of think, thanks lads you're making the management think about it, oh look there's a saving!

I still think there's going to be another two years of intense political activity in Northern Ireland, and if you think about it okay there's been a settlement in South Africa too but we still have a southern Africa correspondent. There have always been good stories from Ireland north and south, there always will be. The one thing I criticise myself for at the moment, is I know that because the peace process has been a world lead story for the last five years, and because of that I have spent most of my time in Northern Ireland. I'm acutely aware that I'm not bringing the stories that should be there from the Irish Republic.

If the management are listening, keep me on boss!

Franklin MacDonald, England: Do you believe that peace really will ensue?

Denis Murray: I think we've got it already, it's an imperfect peace, but it's there. If you think about the stories I used to cover. I think the war is over and I don't think the men of violence can wreck it any more.

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