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The Northern Ireland Assembly: An Uneasy Assembly

Both republicans and unionists have expressed frustration with the lack of concrete progress that has been made in the three years since the Good Friday accord established a political framework for ending the violence in the region.

The Good Friday agreement had established clear guidelines for the IRA to disarm within two years, for the reform of the largely Protestant police force and for a reduction of British military presence. But each side has blamed the other for not fully complying with the accord.

The fate of the 108-member Northern Ireland Assembly, the first democratically elected coalition government since Northern Ireland’s inception in 1921, hangs in the balance. The more moderate parties, led by First Minister David Trimble’s Ulster Unionists and Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon’s Social Democratic and Labour Party, have thus far controlled the work of the legislative body. But the more extreme parties — Reverend Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists and the IRA’s political arm Sinn Féin headed by Gerry Adams – have gained more support in recent elections.

The Northern Ireland Assembly controls six key areas of domestic policy: agriculture, economic development, education, environment, finance and personnel, and health and human services.

Points of Contention

Disputes over implementing the assembly’s decisions now threaten its legitimacy. The IRA claims to have put its arms “beyond use” by twice allowing international inspections of their arms dumps. IRA leaders say they will not disarm further until they have assurances of a sincere commitment that their rights and interests are protected. They say they have upheld their end of the bargain while the British have delayed.

“Every commitment we have entered into we have honored. On two major points in this agreement— policing and demilitarization –the British government has reneged,” the IRA told reporters earlier this month.

Protestant and international officials say the IRA has not truly disarmed. They do not count allowing inspection of arms caches as abiding by the standards set in the 1998 accord. The IRA’s refusal to give up their weapons, coupled with continued recruitment of members, have hardened the Protestant stance and made further negotiation nearly impossible. Even moderate Catholics see the IRA’s stance as defiant and contrary to the wishes of the community.

“IRA arms were illegal and the failure to disarm was an implied threat to the state,” Social Democrat party leader Seamus Mallon said.

Republicans have demanded restructuring of the police force, known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a predominantly Protestant force backed by the British militia, and the drastic reduction of the British military presence. Progress on police and military issues has not moved beyond the negotiating table. Both sides have outlined reforms but disagree on everything from the name of the force to the size to the timetable for British force reduction.


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