Page last updated at 05:46 GMT, Thursday, 8 May 2008 06:46 UK

Devolution - one year on

By Mark Devenport
BBC NI political editor

For Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern the jubilant scenes in the Stormont Great Hall in May 2007 marked the end of years of tortuous negotiations.

Stormont
The restoration of devolution last May marked the end of tense talks

But for the voters who put their trust in the DUP, Sinn Fein and the other local parties it was just the beginning.

A year on, how has devolution Mark two matched up to those voter's expectations?

The most obvious achievement of the current executive is that it is still in existence.

In contrast to the stop-start nature of devolution in the 1990s, the absence of police raids on Stormont and secretaries of state signing suspension orders means politics in Northern Ireland has been far more stable than most people can remember.

Executive ministers would point to a number of other plus points.

Agreement on a Programme for Government promising thousands of new jobs.

Dealing swiftly with flash floods and the threat of foot-and-mouth disease.

Compromising over the number of so-called super councils.

Securing promises of millions of dollars from New York and organising a major US investment conference.

As business continues inside the chamber, outside instances of politically motivated violence are now the exception rather than the norm.

On the minus side, however, the tensions between the members of the Stormont coalition have often been obvious.

Nationalists and unionists are involved in stand-offs over academic selection, Irish language rights, and the future of the former jail at the Maze.

There have also been rivalries between the major and minor partners in the Stormont coalition.

Running battles between the Ulster Unionist Health Minister, Michael McGimpsey, and the DUP Health Committee chair, Iris Robinson.

Then, most memorably, clashes across the assembly chamber between the SDLP Social Development Minister, Margaret Ritchie, and the Finance Minister, Peter Robinson, over Ms Ritchie's decision to axe funding to a UDA-linked conflict transformation initiative.

Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness
Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness were dubbed the "chuckle brothers"

These rivalries appear less bitter than late last year, but given the electoral competition between the executive partners, there is always the potential for these political hostilities to break out again.

Looking ahead, the transfer of policing and justice powers is the most obvious piece of unfinished business.

The DUP continues to insists it is not on the agenda, but Sinn Fein will grow uneasy if the year ends without some sign of progress on this score.

The timing of the devolution of justice will be a test for the DUP's new leader Peter Robinson.

Observers will watch closely to see whether the replacement of Ian Paisley as First Minister leads to a change of style or a change of policy as the "Chuckle Brothers" era is consigned to history.

Critics of the Stormont system maintain that the so-called "mandatory coalition" including all major parties can only be a temporary solution.

So far, though, it's hard to see the parties (especially Sinn Fein) agreeing to an alternative.

Just before Stormont commemorated Devolution Mark two's anniversary a new fence and security restrictions were put in place around Parliament Buildings.

But these were a belated response to the November 2006 incident involving the loyalist Michael Stone, rather than a reflection of tense times.

As business continues inside the chamber, outside instances of politically motivated violence are now the exception rather than the norm.

For many this will be justification enough for our experimental form of government, despite all its obvious imperfections.



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