TWO-and-a-half years after being elected, the 108 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly took their places for the first time at Stormont, just outside Belfast, yesterday. During this period they have been paid their salaries and allowances although they have done nothing to earn them.
Now the British government has had enough and told them that they must reach an agreement about forming a power-sharing executive by 24 November at the very latest or face the sack. Deadlines have a way of slipping in politics but Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain says that 24 November is not negotiable. If the party leaders have not reached an agreement by then Britain will once more take over full responsibility for running the province. NORTHERN Ireland is at peace, relatively speaking, and is thriving economically. The Independent Monitoring Commission's latest report on paramilitary activity confirms that the IRA “has committed itself to a peaceful path.” So what is standing in the way of progress? The Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the largest Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists, who refuses to accept that the Republicans have ended “criminality” and therefore won't countenance sharing power with Gerry Adams' Sinn Fein, the second largest party in the Assembly. Peter Hain has to persuade Mr Paisley and his followers to relax a little, not an easy task.
If no agreement on power sharing is forthcoming, Mr Hain is planning a number of tough administrative reforms which may not be to the liking of Northern Ireland's Protestant majority. Meanwhile, to show his co-operative spirit Mr Adams has nominated Mr Paisley as leader of the executive!