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Saturday, 12 October, 2002, 13:59 GMT 14:59 UK
Fudge and humbug at Stormont
BBC NI political editor Mark Devenport

The souvenir shop at Parliament Buildings should do good business on Monday 14th.

Stormont humbug and Stormont fudge have always been good sellers for visitors with a sweet tooth and a sense of irony, but now it's a case of buying while stocks last.

If you can't make it to east Belfast yourself, try clicking on the assembly website.

There you can find the order paper for the proceedings that had been due to take place on Tuesday.

I would advise you to print it and put it in your bottom drawer - you could have a collector's item.

Because the assembly's scheduled debates on post primary education, farming and potential redundancies in the construction sector in Strangford will never take place.

Deputy First Minister Mark Durkan says he hasn't yet been approached about having a formal consultative role during the forthcoming suspension

On Monday, the assembly was put into hibernation - from midnight - with a stroke of the secretary of state's pen. It's anyone's guess when devolution might return.

John Reid's Northern Ireland Office team has got two new recruits, Ian Pearson and Angela Smith, as the ministers prepare to juggle new departmental responsibilities.

'Hospitals and roads'

So what will they be doing?

Former minister George Howarth found himself in charge of health, education, culture, social development and environment during the last lengthy suspension in 2000.

He told BBC Radio Ulster's Inside Politics programme that direct rule ministers will try to take a neutral approach, continuing initiatives which have already been set in train by the executive, but opting not to make contentious decisions.

However, he conceded while this approach might have been feasible in 2000, when the suspension lasted less than four months, putting pressing matters on the back burner might be more difficult if the latest suspension runs and runs.

As a parting shot, Martin McGuinness's recommendation that the 11-plus transfer test should go in 2004 has captured the headlines

Deputy First Minister Mark Durkan says he hasn't yet been approached about having a formal consultative role during the forthcoming suspension.

He clearly wants to see policies like the "Reinvestment and Reform Initiative" sustained - that's the plan for substantial borrowing from the Treasury in order to build new schools, hospitals and roads.

Indeed a law connected with this - the Strategic Investment and Regeneration of Sites Bill - should squeeze through its second reading in the assembly just before the suspension axe falls.

However, the SDLP leader says his priority is not the arrangement of the furniture on the deck of the suspended Stormont, but what he believes should be urgent attempts to refloat devolution.

Mr Durkan told Inside Politics that if the essential problem of trust was dealt with, an election could happen even before the May 2003 date.

Announcement

But government and Ulster Unionist sources aren't so sure.

They point out that the reverberations of the latest allegations about republican intelligence gathering, the claims of IRA involvement in Colombia and the raid on the Castlereagh police station, could still be making themselves felt in courtrooms a year from now.

Given the increasingly battered condition of the political centre ground, the advisability of holding a May 2003 election (and what any successful candidates might be elected to) may well be something the government will want to consider again next spring.

As a parting shot, Martin McGuinness's recommendation that the 11-plus transfer test should go in 2004 has captured the headlines.
Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid
John Reid will appoint two NIO ministers

With the assembly and the executive yet to approve this or to decide what should replace the test, it's extremely uncertain what influence Mr McGuinness's announcement will really have.

George Howarth told Inside Politics he didn't believe a direct rule minister would feel bound by the decision.

Ulster Unionist Sir Reg Empey expressed deep concern, while Mark Durkan - in another typical one liner - described it as a "last orders at the bar" style of government.

With no-one knowing quite when the next Stormont pub opening hour might be, it's easy to understand why the teetotal education minister is in a rush to get in his shout.

Find out more about the latest moves in the Northern Ireland peace process

Devolution crisis

Analysis

Background

SPECIAL REPORT: IRA

TALKING POINT

AUDIO VIDEO
See also:

22 Sep 02 | N Ireland
21 Sep 02 | N Ireland
23 Sep 02 | N Ireland
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