Page last updated at 05:57 GMT, Monday, 7 September 2009 06:57 UK

Pressure on as MLAs return to work

By Martina Purdy
BBC NI Political Correspondent

Minister and MLAs face some formidable pressures as they return to Stormont today.

Parliament Buildings
MLAs are preparing for a new term at Stormont

Committees are back in session this week and preparations are being made for assembly debates and an Executive meeting.

Perhaps the two greatest challenges are tensions over money and tensions over the proposed devolution of policing and justice.

Certainly, Queen's University professor Rick Wilford said the pressure is on, and that the First and Deputy First Ministers, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, will be leading an Executive where money is increasingly tight in a depressed economy.

"That's the number one challenge, I think," he said.

"They have (also) got the problem of trying to devolve policing and justice and Martin McGuinness has been talking about a Christmas deadline. I'm not sure that Father Christmas will be delivering that on time. I think that might slip yet again."

The ministers are awaiting a report from Downing Street on the issues around financing policing and justice.

Politically, the issue has the potential to drive a stake through the heart of government. Sinn Fein had expected the issue to be resolved by Spring 2008, but the DUP has not been in a hurry to deal with the matter, citing cash and confidence.

No-one under-estimated what would have to be done in order to get the DUP and Sinn Fein functioning together. But I think after two years it's reasonable to expect some out-turn from that relationship
Naomi Long

Mr Robinson has to balance internal party pressures with the need to keep his partner happy. At the same time, he has to contend with sniping on the issue from the Ulster Unionist party and the TUV.

In the past, Sinn Fein has disrupted Executive business in a bid to push the DUP on the issue.

The fact that a general election is looming between now and May will only pile on more pressure.

Even if this issue is resolved, lobbyist Conall McDevitt, managing director of public relations company Weber Shandwick, agrees money is going to be a big problem this term.

The former SDLP ministerial advisor pointed out that Stormont was coming to the end of a budgetary cycle, known as the Comprehensive Spending Review.

"That's going to hit home during the course of this Parliamentary session and when it does, the Assembly's going to feel a cold wind," he said.

At the same time, there is a large pile of outstanding issues, including education reform, community relations strategy, the Maze, the Irish language, and civil service back-pay.

Naomi Long, the Alliance deputy leader, who sits on the Committee of the First and Deputy First Minister has called for the community relations strategy to be tabled.

She said her committee was promised the Cohesion Sharing and Integration Strategy, as it is known, last Halloween.

She said the committee had hoped it would come in June but it failed to materialise.

"It's about time we actually saw these things come to fruition. People expected there to be difficulties and no-one under-estimated what would have to be done in order to get the DUP and Sinn Fein functioning together but I think after two years it's reasonable to expect some out-turn from that relationship."

She said the DUP and Sinn Fein could no longer "dine out" on the fact they are working together - and it's time for delivery.

Critics also complained about a lack of legislation coming through the assembly. Professor Wilford said the assembly's track record so far is uninspiring.

He claims that the list of legislation coming through this term is "pretty thin".

"It suggests that much of the assembly's time is going to be taken up by Private Members' motions...It looks like we are in for a period of legislative famine."

The new environment minister, Edwin Poots, DUP, acknowledged there had been a lack of legislation.

Mr Poots will be steering through a bill on council reform, among others, and pledged the Executive would improve on its record.

"I would expect over the next two years that there will be considerably more legislation brought forward."

Professor Wilford predicted the politics of constraint rather than accommodation and isn't expecting any headline-grabbing policy initiatives.

"I think it is going to be slow and steady. It won't be a do-nothing Executive, it will be a do-little Executive."

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