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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 April, 2005, 10:46 GMT 11:46 UK
Deal and justice top the issues
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

Two of the most important issues under debate at this election will be the ill-fated attempts to restore the devolved assembly and executive at Stormont and the continuing effort to win cross-community support for new policing and justice institutions.
Stormont
Power returning to Stormont will be an election issue

Lurking behind both questions are the continuing allegations about paramilitary criminal activity and doubts on either side about the willingness of others to share power.

In December 2004, negotiations led by the British and Irish governments failed to secure a return to devolution.

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As the two largest parties on either side, the DUP and Sinn Fein played a key role in the talks.

The stumbling block was the DUP's demand for photographs of IRA disarmament.

Concerns about continuing paramilitary criminal activity were heightened after the pre Christmas Northern Bank robbery, which the police blamed on the IRA.

Sinn Fein say the allegations about the IRA are part of an attempt to undermine the party's electoral mandate.

It's not so many years since the IRA claimed police officers were "legitimate targets" in its campaign against British rule
Mark Devenport
Political editor

They would like Stormont to be recalled and the executive re-established without preconditions.

However, unionists are in no mood to share power with republicans.

They favour the exclusion of Sinn Fein from ministerial office and/or a voluntary coalition in which they would share power with the nationalist SDLP.

But the SDLP reject this idea.

They advocate the return of Stormont with unelected community representatives taking responsibility for the devolved government departments.

This model has not found favour with any of the other parties.

The middle-of-the-road Alliance back a voluntary coalition with cabinet style collective responsibility - indeed they championed the idea before the unionists.
The Northern Bank's headquarters in Donegall Square West, Belfast
Millions of pounds were stolen from the bank on 20 December

It's possible to argue that the continuing problems over policing and justice have a more immediate impact on the lives of people in the streets than whether Stormont is ever restored.

This was clearly illustrated by the murder of the father of two Robert McCartney outside a Belfast bar in January.

Although his murder was not authorised by the IRA the involvement of individual republicans, coupled with the failure of key witnesses to come forward, focussed attention on Sinn Fein's reluctance to accept the current policing and justice arrangements in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein want policing and justice powers to be placed in the hands of local politicians according to a fixed timetable.

It's not so many years since the IRA claimed police officers were "legitimate targets" in its campaign against British rule.

Sinn Fein still view the police with distrust.

They claim the reforms to the new Police Service of Northern Ireland, which replaced the old Royal Ulster Constabulary, have not been radical enough.

As part of last year's failed talks, the Sinn Fein leadership promised to call a special party conference to reconsider the party's attitude towards policing.

But this depended on the deal sticking.

Robert McCartney
Robert McCartney, 33, was killed near Belfast city centre
The other parties back the current police service by sitting on the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

Whilst the SDLP want further police reform, they argue that "excellent progress" has been made and will accuse Sinn Fein of holding back progress.

The SDLP want the devolution of policing and justice within 18 months.

Unionists resist a fixed timetable for devolving policing and justice, saying this must depend on the level of confidence on both sides of the community that local politicians can discharge such sensitive powers.

In the light of the allegations of IRA involvement in the Northern Bank raid and other crimes, unionists argue that Sinn Fein politicians are not currently fit to have authority over the police service or the courts.

The UUP says it will resign from the Policing Board if Sinn Fein is brought on to the board before IRA activity ends.



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