Page last updated at 12:52 GMT, Sunday, 19 February 2006

Situation needs wisdom of Solomon

Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

At first sight it looks like the judgement of Solomon.

Unionists won't agree to the creation of a new Stormont executive including republicans, but will participate in an assembly with more limited powers.

Nationalists reject any phased approach to devolution demanding the agreement, the whole agreement and nothing but the agreement.

So why not set up a shadow assembly for a fixed period of time?

That would give unionists what they want whilst reassuring nationalists this is only an interim solution.

Martin McGuinness has ruled out any 'half-way house'

No wonder government officials are looking at the shadow assembly as a possible compromise.

The argument in favour is that, instead of throwing insults at each other in separate talks sessions with British and Irish ministers, the politicians would at least be back inside Stormont together, discussing important matters like the potential model for any future policing and justice department.

Then, after six or 12 months, even the sceptics might be getting frustrated with shadowing direct rule ministers instead of taking decisions themselves.

Perhaps, just perhaps, this frustration would convince them to take the leap necessary to go into government.

Indeed, the government might remind the parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP both negotiated the creation of a shadow assembly in the failed Comprehensive Agreement of December 2004.

Ian Paisley feels the DUP had a lucky escape

The shadow period was meant to kick in at the start of 2005 with the restoration of the power-sharing executive at Easter. If it was good enough then, why not now?

Here's the rub. Both the DUP and Sinn Fein say that times have changed.

Gerry Adams points out that the Comprehensive Agreement failed over the DUP's demand for photographic proof of IRA disarmament.

Therefore, he says, Sinn Fein never agreed to a shadow assembly. He has told Tony Blair that republicans are not interested in a two-stage approach.

Martin McGuinness rules out any "halfway houses" which depend on the DUP fulfilling a promise in six or 12 months time.

The DUP likes the idea more, but won't give any guarantee that it will be ready to share power according to any fixed timetable.

Stormont
Could Stormont be home to a shadow assembly?

It reserves the right to judge when, if ever, Sinn Fein has met its criteria for coalition.

Far from feeling bound by the terms of the Comprehensive Agreement, Ian Paisley feels that he had a lucky escape.

DUP MPs claim the Northern Bank robbery, blamed by the police on the IRA, changed their thinking irrevocably.

So what would King Solomon do? Call the Stormont MLAs back now, as both Sinn Fein and the SDLP demand?

Create a shadow assembly until May 2007 and challenge the reluctant parties to take their places?

Cut their salaries to see if that changes anything?

With the clock apparently ticking down to his departure, Tony Blair must be wondering what he can do to shake things up without destroying the last vestiges of the agreement which he sees as part of his legacy.


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