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Friday, 11 October, 2002, 19:21 GMT 20:21 UK
Facing the ritual of direct rule
Stormont crisis is coming to a head
Kevin Connolly

There is no formal ceremony to mark the suspension of devolution in Northern Ireland, and the return of direct rule from Westminster.

No gilded keys are presented on velvet cushions, and no sets of keys handed over.

Perhaps there should be something. This is after all, becoming a familiar ritual.

This is the fourth time the local elected assembly and the ministerial executive drawn from its ranks have been placed into cold storage.

The mood in Northern Ireland is anything but festive

The BBC's Kevin Connolly
The job of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is already one of the oddest in government anywhere in the free world. It combines a castle as official residence with powers which, under direct rule, are rather reminiscent of a colonial governor-general.

A little extra ceremonial would fit in rather nicely.

For the moment though, the mood in Northern Ireland is anything but festive.

If anything, it's reminiscent of the gloomy day in February 2000 when Peter Mandelson as the then secretary of state pulled down the curtain on the first phase of devolution for a suspension that lasted four months.

The two interruptions to power-sharing which have come on John Reid's watch have been rather different, tactical uses of suspension to trigger six-week periods of intensive talks.

This time the decision to re-impose direct rule has been taken in very different circumstances.

Lost faith

The unmasking of an IRA intelligence operation directed against the Northern Ireland Office and subsequent Sinn Fein denials of any wrong doing have shattered unionist faith in republican good intentions.

Republicans in turn believe unionists were looking for an opportunity to get out of power-sharing and accuse sinister elements in the security forces of deliberately providing an excuse by staging a high-profile search of a Sinn Fein office at Stormont.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble
David Trimble: Concerns over power-sharing
It is true that David Trimble's Ulster Unionist party has been worrying about how its participation in power-sharing would play with voters in elections next year.

There's a sense that Protestant opinion, never overwhelmingly in favour of the Good Friday Agreement, is now strongly against it.

Mr Trimble has to compete for Protestant votes against the Democratic Unionist Party led by Ian Paisley. His party has managed to be stridently against the Good Friday Agreement, but also to operate two ministerial portfolios in the institutions the deal created.

Government anger

But Unionists are genuinely angry, and that anger shouldn't be underestimated.

Whatever the precise wording of the Good Friday Agreement they have always felt they signed up to a process which would bring a rapid end to paramilitarism - in effect the eradication of the IRA.

John Reid: Secretary of State
John Reid: Direct rule decision imminent
The last year has brought a string of stories about intelligence-gathering, street violence, and paramilitary co-operation with Colombian rebels which, in unionist minds, add up to proof that they've been given no such thing.

The British government is angry in private, measured in public. But it remains convinced that the key republican leaders like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are irrevocably committed to the peace strategy.

They are probably right. The IRA ceasefire did not grow out of any dialogue with other parties. It developed from the republicans' own analysis that political violence was not going to achieve their aim of ending the British role in Ireland.

Deep freeze

For the moment, that is the one bright spot - and there are plenty of dark clouds on the horizon, not least continuing campaigns of violence by loyalist paramilitaries.

So now that Dr Reid has announced direct rule is to be re-imposed, don't expect any rush to get Northern Ireland's parties together around the table.

There's too much anger, and too little trust for the moment.

Expect instead a lengthy cooling off period in which, in truth, Northern Ireland will be administered rather than governed.

Difficult decisions on issues like post-primary educational selection will simply be put on hold until devolution is resumed.

No-one is saying that power-sharing is dead - not yet anyway - but it is about to be deep frozen and any thaw is likely to be a long way off.

BBC NI political correspondent Martina Purdy:
"With power-sharing evaporating at Stormont the political future is far from certain"
DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson:
"I hope the prime minister does not take the decision to suspend democracy"
BBC NI's Shane Harrison reports:
"David Trimble said the idea of suspension ignored the underlying problem of continuing paramilitary activity"
Find out more about the latest moves in the Northern Ireland peace process

Devolution crisis





See also:

10 Oct 02 | N Ireland
09 Oct 02 | N Ireland
07 Oct 02 | N Ireland
09 Oct 02 | N Ireland
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