Assembly needs firmer foundations: Leonard [South Belfast News]

Next Monday will see the spectacle of your MLAs returning to the Northern Ireland Assembly. They’ll sign the entry book and take their seats in the chamber, for the first time since being elected three years ago.

They have been given a precious opportunity to get things right. People have had enough of stop-start politics and a revolving door Assembly. Therefore, it is crucial that the Assembly and Executive are not only restored, but placed on a firm and sustainable basis. It would be farcical if the institutions were to return, only to collapse a few months later.

Any real effort to do this needs to be linked to a full understanding of the flaws within the Agreement itself, as well as of the mistakes made during implementation.

Sadly, and to a large extent as a result of many misjudgments over the past few years, Northern Ireland is now more politically polarised than ever before. The challenge of building and sustaining an Executive, with the DUP and Sinn Fein as the two largest parties, is particularly daunting. Alliance fears that the Government will accept that the only way that they may be able to co-exist within the same government is through carving out separate spheres of influence. Such a tribal carve-up would repeat and exacerbate the failures of the previous Assembly.

The new Shared Future policy from the Government is at last putting Northern Ireland on the correct path towards a shared and integrated future. This is something that Alliance has long been working for.

But there is now a major disjunction, between the new approach to public policy and the entrenched political divisions in society. Working to improve good relations on the ground is fundamental to creating the circumstances for political change in the medium to long term.

The main determinants of a deal in the autumn would probably include several elements.

IRA paramilitarism. There would need to be a clear indication from the Independent Monitoring Commission that the IRA had stopped all paramilitary activity and involvement in organised crime. Closely, related to this must be a commitment from Republicans to support and work closely with the police. This is not a case of ever changing preconditions, but achieving the goal of consent by all for the reformed police service.

Loyalist paramilitarism. Greater efforts must be made to address the ongoing problem of Loyalist paramilitary activity. It must be a concern that Loyalist groups are determined to hold onto their weaponry. Meanwhile, Unionists are less than credible while they selectively boycott policing structures, such as their current absenteeism of the Policing Board.

DUP commitment. The DUP will obviously need to give a commitment to support the political institutions. There is a genuine lack of trust that the DUP will work the Assembly and other institutions in an inclusive manner.

GFA changes. What the DUP demand are changes to the Agreement. Both the British and Irish Governments have accepted that changes can be made to the structures of the Agreement, provided that they are consistent within its underlying principles. But changes need to be made on a much broader front that just making those to ensure that the DUP can buy into the process. The institutionalised sectarianism of Assembly designations, and the lack of incentives for co-operation and accommodation within the Executive, remain major causes for concern.

Policing devolution. One of the key structural issues will be determining when and how policing and criminal justice powers can be devolved. This is a hugely sensitive issue, and Alliance firmly believes that without significant changes to enhance collective responsibility within the Executive, the necessary confidence across the community will not be created. Policing needs to be devolved, but only in the right circumstances and within the right structures. It would be disastrous to get this wrong.

Civic society. Finally, it is crucial that civic society gives the politicians a major push to achieve a renewed accommodation in the autumn. The support and encouragement from businesses, trade unions and the voluntary sector was vital in 1998.

For our part, Alliance has been fully committed to make the Assembly and all of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement work, for all of us. The next weeks and months will reveal the truth whether the politicians and Government officials get it right. Meanwhile, public support and a can-do spirit would certainly help, and could prove crucial, just as before.

Allan Leonard is a representative of the Laganbank area and Alliance General Secretary

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