[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Thursday, 14 October, 2004, 10:38 GMT 11:38 UK
Sticking points delay devolution's return

By Martina Purdy
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

Shortly after Stormont was suspended in October 2002, a senior source at the Northern Ireland Office made a prediction that devolution would be on the shelf for at least two years.

"It's chronic right now," he said. "There will be no early return to power-sharing."
Stormont
The Stormont government has been suspended since 2002

He pointed to the potential political landmines ahead that would shake unionist confidence in any renewed power-sharing arrangement with republicans - including court cases over the so-called Colombia Three and "Stormontgate".

Memories of the police raid at Parliament Buildings were far too fresh, the source said, for a speedy return.

Since then, the three Irishmen arrested in Colombia have been acquitted on the major charge of training Farc terrorists - but convicted of the lesser charge of travelling on false passports.

The case is being appealed by the Colombian authorities. And cases relating to "Stormontgate" are still before the courts.

'New sticking point'

Exactly two years from the suspension, the IRA remains an issue - as does its weaponry.

There is the outline of a deal to resolve these issues. The policing issue is not settled.

There has been progress, but the problem is how soon the assembly can get control - and the structures for devolved policing and justice.

And complicating matters, the new sticking point is "accountability".

The fact remains too that these four ministers are juggling several portfolios at a time compared to one per devolved minister

The DUP says this is to ensure there are no "rogue ministers" and everyone can have a say.

Nationalists claim "accountability" is a DUP word for veto.

While the stalemate continues, a price is being paid by the Northern Ireland electorate in terms of getting that elusive "accountability".

Direct rule ministers are viewed as second best.

In the past, some direct rule ministers have been perceived as indifferent to their departments.

Voters

But a senior civil servant insisted this is not the case now. He pointed to the latest tug-of-war over budgets.

"It was brutal," he said, as ministers Angela Smith, John Spellar, Barry Gardiner and Ian Pearson fought for their departments.

But the civil servant acknowledged there is a key factor missing in their political decision-making.

Nigel Dodds
Nigel Dodds says housing issues need more attention
"Unlike home-grown ministers they are not afraid of the voters here," he said.

The fact remains too that these four ministers are juggling several portfolios at a time compared to one per devolved minister.

So between travelling back and forth to their constituencies, and dividing time between their departments, they cannot possibly give issues the same level of attention as a devolved administration.

A Sinn Fein spokesman said: "You are not getting the same level of output in terms of decision-making and policy development, and forward planning."

'Slow progress'

Sinn Fein also complains that the cost of consultants soared by 8m last year to 45m.

The party blames direct rule - although the "consultantitis" charge was levelled at the assembly.

The difference may be that a home-grown minister would be more worried about it.

And all the parties are complaining bitterly about the water charges issue - claiming, at the very least, that a devolved administration would have handled the issue very differently and with more consultation

Parties point to decisions being long-fingered, or delayed.

The SDLP's Direct Rule Watch document highlights delays in the Single Equality Bill (which was also behind schedule under devolution), and the Special Educational Needs and Disability Order.

The party further complains of slow progress in the all-Ireland energy strategy.

DUP MP Nigel Dodds, a former minister for social development, said housing issues were not getting the attention they needed.

He points to the recent announcement by the minister making it easier for Housing Executive tenants to buy their homes.

"That sat for months and months on the minister's desk," he said. "I have no doubt that decision would have been taken more quickly under devolution and more people would have been living in their own homes."

Former Ulster Unionist minister Michael McGimpsey points to libraries struggling to make ends meet - and blames minister Angela Smith for failing to provide sufficient budgets.

"They're not even getting inflation (rises)," he said.

And all the parties are complaining bitterly about the water charges issue - claiming, at the very least, that a devolved administration would have handled the issue very differently and with more consultation.

But until the parties resolve their differences, direct rule is here to stay.




NI POLITICAL PROCESS

LATEST NEWS

ANALYSIS

TIMELINE

FROM THE ARCHIVE

KEY PEOPLE PROFILED
 
POLITICAL PARTY LINKS
 
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


PRODUCTS AND SERVICES

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific