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Last Updated: Saturday, 22 July 2006, 09:16 GMT 10:16 UK
Hain's carrot and stick approach
Gareth Gordon
By Gareth Gordon
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

We already know Peter Hain likes being Frank - and this week he was Sinatra as well - if assembly members were not up to their jobs, he would do it "My Way".

Peter Hain
Peter Hain has been "sabre rattling" with local parties

Having set the controls firmly in the direction of Plan B he jets off to the US next week with the sound of rattling sabres in his wake.

Since the turn of the year and the appearance of "The Deadline", the secretary of state really has been laying it on the parties with a trowel.

In the past week, Mr Hain has unloaded on Sinn Fein over policing; the DUP over not talking to Sinn Fein; and most recently - everyone.

He effectively sent out to assembly members redundancy notices reminding them of their responsibilities as employers should their salaries 'disappear' at one minute past midnight on 25 November - just in case they hadn't worked that one out for themselves.

Increasingly, Mr Hain resembles a weary dog-owner trying to coax his recalcitrant pooch inside at bedtime. One moment he scolds; the next he tries the choccy biscuits approach.

Most of the time he behaves as if he's calling to all of the parties - when most of the time he's aiming at only one - the DUP.

After all, there'll be no assembly unless they say so and at the moment they're saying no without so much as a thank you very much.

The only thing which could change that is a decisive move by Sinn Fein on policing and a report from the Independent Monitoring Commission in October saying the IRA has ridden off into the sunset.

But you'd have to be a super-optimist not to believe a deal next spring is a much more likely scenario and even then...

In the meantime, the grass grows more quickly at Stormont than the Preparation for Government Committee (was anything ever more inappropriately named?) does its business.

And Mr Hain has the sniffles. As he said in the House of Commons this week: "Having a permatan does not prevent one from getting a cold."

It is, of course, the DUP which is supposed to be catching cold as he wages his one-man campaign to force them to snuggle up next to Sinn Fein by 25 November.

Thick skin

Now the DUP has a hide like a rhinoceros - though it wouldn't need it to fend off "blows" like these.

Cutting the number of Northern Ireland government departments? The DUP's been calling for it for years.

In fact, knowing a deal isn't possible this year, they may be quite happy to let the secretary of state tackle the departments himself because the assembly is unlikely to reach agreement on the issue.

As much of this is driven by the Reform of Public Administration, the cynic might just think this is evening things up after Sinn Fein got its way over having only seven councils.

It all seems a little tough on parties like the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists who can do nothing about the assembly, yet at face value seem to have most to lose if the departments are reduced.

The number of government departments at Stormont may be cut

Yet do they? Must fewer departments mean fewer ministers?

Not necessarily if you take the Scottish model, where each department has a minister and deputy minister.

Admittedly, such a solution may be less workable in Northern Ireland - a Sinn Fein minister with a DUP deputy? - but it is an idea that is likely to be pursued when officials get around to seriously working out a plan.

Mr Hain refused to outline how he thought the ministerial cake could be carved in future. But he did give some fairly serious clues.

Certainly the merging of environment and rural development looks like a no-brainer.

And, of course, another problem looms.

Scotland has a minister for justice... the timing of policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland is still a matter of serious contention between the local parties - and will it be one ministry or two?

So departmental reform happens whether the assembly returns or not; there's to be reform of the hated orders in council system, so MPs will soon be able to amend Northern Ireland legislation.

Set that beside the PFG committee and if the government is not careful it will help create the impression that devolution's not really a very good idea.

That's not the message, of course, that Mr Hain and Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern will deliver when they meet at Hillsborough next week.

In a few days it will be the first anniversary of the IRA ending its armed campaign.

Politically, after the usual August cessation, expect hositilities to resume as normal in September.





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