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Last Updated: Monday, 28 January 2008, 21:59 GMT
A day is a long time in politics
Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
BBC NI political editor

Martin McGuinness
Martin McGuinness insisted he and Ian Paisley did not fall out
If Northern Ireland's conflict was known in some quarters as "the long war", then the session at which the new Victims Commission was announced could have been termed "the longest day".

Confirming the four names leaked to the press last week did not take very long. That announcement was over after an hour.

But MLAs then undertook the task of debating the executive's final programme for government.

With six hours set aside for the debate, plus questions to ministers and a discussion of a Westminster Criminal Justice Order, the Stormont legislators clocked on in the expectation that they would not leave the Chamber until nearly eleven o'clock at night.

As the long evening drew to a close, SDLP sources signalled that the party was in a militant mood
Ian Paisley read the agreed text, appointing the new Victims Commission, then left it to Martin McGuinness to take on the critics in a question and answer session.

Mr McGuinness assured the sceptics that he and the first minister had never fallen out over the identity of a single commissioner, rather their thinking had evolved after interviewing all the suitable applicants.

This assurance provoked a Shakespearian clash between the SDLP's Alban Maginness and the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson.

Four Victims Commissioners
The commission appointments process was long and drawn out
Mr Maginness claimed the deputy first minister was "protesting too much" when he denied any disagreement with the DUP over the appointment.

But Mr Donaldson accused Mr Maginness of himself "protesting too much" because the previous Executive had failed to find the resources to appoint any victims champion.

Marathon

The assembly then embarked on its marathon consideration of the Programme for Government.

When the draft programme for government was under discussion last year, the debate had real bite because it appeared that two of the four executive parties might vote against it.

In response, Finance Minister Peter Robinson warned that if there was no agreed programme for government, then there would be no government - it sounded like a fairly direct threat to bring the Stormont edifice down.

This time matters appeared more genteel.

DUP Chief Whip Lord Morrow indicated that his party was happy to accept an Ulster Unionist amendment calling for the government programme to be subject to review and revision.

The DUP's Sammy Wilson, Sinn Fein's Martina Anderson and even the UUP's David McClarty all rounded on the Alliance Party, criticising either the "negativity" of its opposition or the assumptions it makes about the savings likely to accrue from greater integration.

SDLP leader Mark Durkan
The SDLP is staking a claim to be the most radical element of the "opposition within".
It looked like the executive parties were closing ranks.

But Lord Morrow also singled out the SDLP for criticism, because they were backing a more far-reaching amendment calling for a greater emphasis on the "Shared Future" - a policy dating back to the days of direct rule which is meant to confront division.

During the day, the SDLP's Dolores Kelly had told the BBC's Stormont Live programme that there would be no "train wreck" when the votes on the government programme and Tuesday's vote on the budget were taken.

But as the long evening drew to a close, SDLP sources signalled that the party was in a militant mood.

Whilst the party's only minister, Margaret Ritchie, is duty-bound to back the budget, the SDLP assembly group intend to vote against.

They are citing issues like water reform, the lack of detail over the 11-plus replacement and the lack of a children's fund.

By voting against the budget, the SDLP may, on the face of it, place Ms Ritchie in a difficult situation within the executive.

But they are also staking a claim to be the most radical element of the "opposition within".

By complaining, amongst other things, about what they term a "standstill" in health funding, they could potentially embarrass the Ulster Unionists who have pronounced the health settlement "as good as it gets".

It's highly unlikely the SDLP stance will prompt Peter Robinson to make good on his threat to pull the plug on the Stormont coalition.

So at the end of the assembly's longest day the executive still looks to be there for the long haul.

However, the SDLP's declaration of partial independence once again underlines the fractious nature of this mandatory four-party coalition.



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