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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 December 2005, 10:17 GMT
2005: The year in politics

By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

2005 will go down as the year when the IRA finally disarmed to the satisfaction of the Canadian General John de Chastelain.

Yet, despite this seismic move, the Stormont assembly remained in mothballs as unionists took their time assessing whether the IRA has really ended its armed campaign and its involvement in criminal activity.

Indeed, the year ended with renewed controversy over allegations of IRA spying and British dirty tricks.

Stormont
Breakdown of negotiations on restoring devolution was soon overshadowed

The September breakthrough on disarmament came after a period of concerted pressure on republicans during the spring.

The breakdown of negotiations on restoring devolution in December 2004 was soon overshadowed in the headlines by allegations that the IRA was behind the 26.5m Northern Bank robbery.

This was compounded by the campaign of the sisters of Robert McCartney, who wanted any IRA members implicated in the murder of their brother to be brought to justice.

The pressure reached its symbolic high point in Washington when some of the most famous faces in US politics - Senators Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy and John McCain - queued up to lend their support to the McCartney family's campaign.

The next month, at the start of a general election campaign, Gerry Adams appealed to the IRA to turn away from violence and embrace a political alternative.

Such appeals are not usually made without the Sinn Fein president having a good idea what kind of a reply he will get.

In July, the IRA released a limited edition DVD of former prisoner Seanna Walsh ordering all IRA members to dump their arms.

The DUP took nine constituencies, including the scalp of the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, who stood down to be replaced by Sir Reg Empey

Then in September, two clerical witnesses, the Reverend Harold Good and Father Alec Reid, witnessed the destruction of what General de Chastelain reckoned was the IRA's complete arsenal.

However, the DUP felt under no pressure to respond in the short term.

The party emerged as the big winners of the May general election.

They took nine constituencies, including the scalp of the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, who stood down to be replaced by Sir Reg Empey.

Home battalions

The DUP initially criticised the IRA's disarmament because of the lack of photographic evidence.

Then they switched tack to demanding a series of "confidence building measures" - set out in a 64-page document presented to Downing Street.

If you want a deal, was their message, you must pay a price.

The DUP did get some joy, such as the appointment of an RUC widow as Victims' Commissioner.

But they also had to put up with some bitter medicine, most significantly the disbandment of the Royal Irish Regiment's home battalions.

Secretary of State Peter Hain
Secretary of State Peter Hain ordered Sean Kelly's release

After the election, Paul Murphy was replaced by a new secretary of state, Peter Hain, who combined the job with his other duties as Welsh secretary.

Unionists did not create too much of a fuss, despite coverage of Mr Hain's past support for British withdrawal from Northern Ireland.

They applauded his decision to send Shankill bomber Sean Kelly back to jail, then denounced Mr Hain for ordering Kelly's swift release as a quid pro quo for the IRA going into its new mode.

The collapse of the co-called "Stormontgate" case - which led to the fall of the power-sharing government back in 2002 - prompted similar protests from unionists in December.

The murky affair grew ever more complex when one of the men originally accused of involvement in an IRA spy ring - the Sinn Fein veteran Denis Donaldson - admitted that he had been a British agent for two decades.

'Alliance of sleaze'

During the autumn, the controversial Northern Ireland Offences Bill began a rocky passage through Parliament.

The debates in the Commons were hot and heavy, but it is in the Lords that the Bill will run into the most trouble.

The SDLP mounted an effective attack on Sinn Fein over the inclusion of security force members charged with collusion in the proposed near-amnesty.

Sinn Fein denied they had engaged in an "alliance of sleaze", but in a dramatic about turn in December they called for the bill to be withdrawn. That left ministers scratching their heads about what to do.

Millions were taken during a raid on the Northern Bank last year
Millions were taken during a raid on the Northern Bank last year

Buoyed by the media pressure on the IRA in the spring, the SDLP fought a better election campaign than many had expected.

Its leader, Mark Durkan, held on to Foyle and its deputy leader, Alasdair McDonnell, benefited from a split unionist vote to take South Belfast.

However, as expected, Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy took Newry and Armagh and the Sinn Fein vote held up better than some of their critics had predicted.

By the end of the year, Peter Hain's patience with local politicians seemed to be wearing thin as he talked about the pointlessness of holding another election to a still suspended Stormont.

In November, Mr Hain opted for the replacement of the 26 existing local councils with just seven super councils.

That flew in the face of opposition from four of the five major parties.

Mr Hain argued that it made economic and administrative sense.

But many remained suspicious that ministers were intent on making direct rule uncomfortable as another incentive for the parties to broker the deal to restore devolution, which has so far eluded them.


SEE ALSO:
Major reform of local government
22 Nov 05 |  Northern Ireland
Reaction to local government shake-up
22 Nov 05 |  Northern Ireland
'No threat to Catholic education'
17 Nov 05 |  Northern Ireland
Parties 'must commit to services'
04 May 05 |  Northern Ireland
Red tape spending 'clamp down'
13 Jan 04 |  Northern Ireland
Election marks end of council era
05 Apr 05 |  Northern Ireland


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