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Last Updated: Saturday, 26 August 2006, 10:51 GMT 11:51 UK
Workmanlike exhanges in assembly

By Mark Devenport
Political editor, BBC Northern Ireland

Preparation for government discussions continue at Stormont

First of all, a quick quiz. Who is holding this conversation?

"We put our proposals last week, and they were not agreed. I do not detect any change of heart around the table from any party. I am not sure that putting them again this week will add any clarity to the situation."

"I detect that people are coming closer to agreeing my proposals, but they have not quite reached that stage."

"Do we want to park that or can we conclude on it?"

"The car park is filling up."

"We will need traffic wardens..."

"...It will have to be a multi-storey."

"Perhaps underground, even."

No, it's not a group of urban planners discussing car parking options in Belfast or Londonderry.

Instead it's assembly members Naomi Long, Peter Robinson, Francie Molloy, Gregory Campbell and Conor Murphy trying to work out whether they can move forward with suggested rule changes for the Stormont assembly, or whether they will have to leave those issues in a metaphorical car park.

These are some of the more scintillating moments of what has been a long summer of meetings of the Preparation for Government Committee and its economic sub-group.

When it was first formed, the committee generated the worst kind of headlines, failing to even agree who should chair its proceedings.

But the government hoped that by shutting the warring politicians in the same room to identify obstacles to devolution some kind of common purpose might be generated.

Has it worked? Interviewed for Radio Ulster's Inside Politics, Sinn Fein's John O'Dowd reckons it hasn't.

He says the DUP has refused to engage with his party and hasn't taken the opportunity to find out what makes republicans tick.

In that sense, he claims the committee has not really prepared for government.

The DUP's Edwin Poots appears happy with that assessment, insisting the exchanges inside the committee don't amount to dialogue between his party and Sinn Fein.

Peter Hain
Peter Hain is hoping for progress

Although the protagonists seem unimpressed, it pays to look at what the committee has been doing in a little more detail.

After the BBC published a leaked copy of the Hansard transcript of an early hearing, the committee decided to publish its proceedings on the Northern Ireland Assembly website.

So whilst the meetings take place behind closed doors you can peruse every word.


Some of the exchanges are predictably combative. However most of the proceedings have been more workmanlike.

There are a number of occasions on which the DUP and Sinn Fein are clearly interacting. It may not be polite, but it is a conversation.

Occasionally the parties have reached agreement.

That's perhaps no surprise when the committee's economic sub-group is concerned - everyone recognises the need for more industrial research and development and a reduction in the dominance of the public sector.

However, more surprisingly, the negotiators were quick to agree the need for a single future department of policing and justice, dispensing with ideas that two departments could split the responsibilities between them or that the powers should be handed to an expanded office of the first and deputy first ministers.

All parties backed a DUP motion calling for the stand down of all paramilitary organisations.

But this was not quite the breakthrough it seems, as the DUP called for immediate IRA disbandment to follow, whilst Sinn Fein maintain that last year's IRA initiative constituted a "stand down" and the onus is now on unionists to use their influence to secure the standing down of the UVF and UDA.

Peter Hain told the committee their job is not to scrutinise government policy or cross question direct rule ministers.

However, the secretary of state is now trying to arrange a date for a meeting where he hopes to hear what progress the politicians have made over the summer.

Their list of achievements will be a lot shorter than the list of outstanding obstacles.

Nevertheless, Mr Hain probably reckons making the politicians work through their holidays was a better warm-up for the autumn negotiations than treating the summer as a clean break.





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