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Wednesday, 1 December, 1999, 17:23 GMT
Devolution 'giant step', says Blair
Historic transfer of power from London to Belfast Historic transfer of power from London to Belfast

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has hailed the setting up of a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland as "one huge, giant step" towards lasting peace.

He was speaking as the countdown begins to Northern Ireland having its first locally elected administration in a generation.

The Search for Peace
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The UK Parliament has overwhelmingly voted that the transfer of power from London to the Northern Ireland Assembly will take place at midnight on Wednesday.

The Queen has formally approved the transfer of responsibilities from Westminster to Belfast following approval by Parliament on Tuesday night.

She gave Royal Assent to the decision to devolve power to the province's first locally elected executive in over 25 years.

Responsibility for key issues such as health, education, finance and culture will now pass to the assembly and locally elected politicians, for the first time in a generation.

Speaking during Prime Minster's question time in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Mr Blair said it was a significant breakthrough.

"There are going to be many difficulties along the way, but I believe one huge, giant step has been taken," he said.

Meanwhile, the Irish junior Foreign Minister Liz O'Donnell has arrived at Stormont in Belfast for the inaugural meeting of the North South Ministerial Council.

She announced that the first meeting of the new body after devolution will be on Monday, 30 December.

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On Thursday, the Northern Ireland Executive is due to meet for the first time and will begin to take political responsibility for most of the departments currently dealt with by Northern Ireland Office direct rule ministers.

The IRA is also expected to appoint its "interlocutor" or representative to the de Chastelain body on the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons.

On Thursday morning the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Irish Foreign Minister will exchange papers to establish the North-South Institutions.

The Irish Cabinet will then go to the Irish parliament, the Dail, where it will complete the removal of articles two and three of the Irish Constitution which lay claim to Northern Ireland.

The move to end 27 years of direct rule, is one of the key parts of the Good Friday Agreement peace accord.

MPs voted by 318 to 10 to back devolution after Ian Paisley's anti-agreement Democratic Unionist Party forced a vote on the transfer of power.

Putting the historic order before MPs the Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson said: "After a quarter of a century the curtain is coming down on direct rule."

He continued saying: "Hence forward Northern Ireland's future will be decided by the consent of its own people."

But with devolution little more than hours away the IRA has said it is unhappy with the decommissioning timetable, underlining the fragility of the peace process.
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