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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 April 2006, 10:15 GMT 11:15 UK
Could Plan B be spur to progress?
Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

So will this be the return of the assembly - or are we looking at something much more like the short-lived Northern Ireland Forum?

Not a lot of funny things happened in the forum, housed in the unprepossessing former Co-op building in north Belfast.

However, it did have a very engaging chairman in the person of the decorated war hero, Sir John Gorman.

The Ulster Unionist caused a stir when he told the press he rather admired Gerry Adams as a fellow military man.

Sir John Gorman said he admired Gerry Adams

But whilst Ian Paisley fumed about the comments, the DUP leader was soon disarmed by the charming former tank commander's explanation.

The structural problem with the forum was its lack of nationalist support.

Sinn Fein boycotted the body, whilst the SDLP walked out in protest over a Drumcree marching decision.

Could the new model assembly suffer from a similarly half-hearted nationalist approach?

The indications are that both Sinn Fein and the SDLP will turn up to the new Stormont and participate in any votes for a new speaker and a new first and deputy first minister.

But even if the rules are changed to enable the assembly to form committees, Martin McGuinness says republicans won't take places in them.

Sinn Fein's logic would be that such scrutiny committees operating without a local power-sharing executive are not part of the Good Friday Agreement.

If Sinn Fein stick to this approach it may pressurise the SDLP to also take an a la carte approach to the new Stormont.

It's understood the talk of a green form of direct rule may be complicating and delaying the UVF's consideration of how to respond to last year's IRA initiatives

The logic for re-invigorating the assembly was that getting the politicians to rub shoulders together might help them overcome their differences.

If nationalists are keeping the body at arms length this might undermine the entire raison d'etre.

In tandem with reviving Stormont, the governments have sounded out the parties about another round of talks at an English stately home over the summer.

Some politicians are less than impressed by the suggestion arguing that it would make a nonsense of the first session of the new assembly.

They say the parties would do nothing at Stormont in order to keep their powder dry for the summer talks.

Nationalists insist they won't be dragged into a never-ending shadow assembly.

That's why the governments have set November as the backstop for their efforts.

The two PMs held talks in Brussels
Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair have set a November deadline

Failure then, they hint, will mean that Stormont's doors will be shut and Plan B will come into play.

Given that Plan A is still fairly vague, the details of Plan B are even more opaque.

However, it's fairly clear that it revolves around giving powers to the seven new super councils and pursuing what's being called "joint management", a green-tinged form of direct rule.

Both Irish and British ministers have hinted at this in order to spur the DUP towards agreeing a deal.

But there are signs that such talk could be unsettling loyalists, especially the UVF, who have set great store by the routing power through the assembly as an insurance policy against any dilution of the union.

It's understood the talk of a green form of direct rule may be complicating and delaying the UVF's consideration of how to respond to last year's IRA initiatives.

Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair are hoping that the success of their Plan A will render the UVF's concerns about their Plan B academic.

The betting has to be that we won't know whether their hopes will be justified until the clock strikes midnight on 24 November.


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