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The News Line: Feature STORMONT ‘ON THE BRINK OF COLLAPSE’ By Irish political journalist JOHN COULTER

STORMONT stands on the brink of collapse – a political dilemma the North has not faced since 2002 when the British Government suspended the parliament amid allegations of a republican spy ring at the Assembly buildings.

The North is about to enter its most troublesome 72 hours since the current Democratic Unionist/Sinn Fein power-sharing Executive was created in May 2007.

Until this three-day standoff is over, brinkmanship will be the order of the day as both DUP and Sinn Fein bid to wring the last possible concessions out of the British and Irish governments.

British PM Gordon Brown is expected to fly into the North on Tuesday 16 September in a bid to use Downing Street muscle to break the deadlock.

The following day, 17 September, is the crucial Fermanagh Council by-election, which has become a ‘must win’ for the DUP if internal unity is to be maintained.

Failure to hold the seat the DUP is depending on, especially if a split pro-Union vote sees the seat slip into the hands of Sinn Fein, will put tremendous pressure on First Minister Peter Robinson’s partnership with Sinn Fein.

Just as former First Minister David Trimble – now ironically a Tory peer – had to shift his Ulster Unionists to the Hard Right ideologically to stem the voices of anti-agreement dissent within his own ranks, DUP boss Robinson will be faced with a similar dilemma.

Lose Fermanagh, and he will be forced to politically ‘cool’ his party’s partnership with Sinn Fein – a move that will almost certainly put the already strained peace process under even more pressure.

Win or lose Fermanagh, Robinson cannot afford to ignore the potentially damaging political guerrilla war being waged against his party by the increasingly irritating Traditional Unionist Voice movement headed by Independent MEP Jim Allister.

Robinson insists there must be a meeting of the power-sharing Stormont Executive on Thursday 18 September, by which time the Fermanagh result should be known.

But Robinson has a Plan B. Allow the Assembly to be moth-balled and rely on getting progress achieved in the North by using his nine MP bloc at Westminster. In short, the DUP would become an integrationist party.

This is a move which might actually be lapped up by Brown, under tremendous pressure in Scotland from the SNP minority government in the Scottish Parliament, and by the role of Welsh nationalists in the Welsh Assembly.

Robinson, too, has already warned of dire consequences should the next meeting of the Northern Executive meeting not proceed – a hint which could be interpreted that his party would agree to some kind of temporary suspension.

In the meantime, furious behind the scenes negotiations are continuing between the rival camps in a bid to find a workable solution to the impasse.

One suggestion is that the controversial policing and justice powers could still be devolved to the Assembly, but that the new ministry would be run by the middle of the road Alliance Party – with its deputy leader and East Belfast MLA Naomi Long the hot favourite to become the new Minister for Policing and Justice.

While Sinn Fein has five Commons MPs to the SDLP’s three, the Provisional IRA’s political wing has consistently refused to take its seats at Westminster. The SDLP has traditionally voted with Labour.

The SDLP warnings on the Assembly have sparked equally dire warnings from Sinn Fein. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness MP MLA, Sinn Fein’s Chief Negotiator, has expressed his amazement at comments by the SDLP leader Mark Durkan that power sharing arrangements in Stormont should be scrapped.

Mr McGuinness said: ‘It amazes me how the leader of the SDLP would take up and argue the position of Unionists over the past ten years, that the mandatory coalition should be ended. The position he has adopted is effectively throwing his weight behind the likes of Jim Allister and other anti peace process elements.

‘The Partnership Arrangements as defined by the Good Friday Agreement were supported overwhelming by the people of Ireland, north and south; this proposal from the leader of the SDLP is a total recipe for disaster.

‘What Mark Durkan is suggesting, is an abandonment of the principles of the Good Friday Agreement and essentially an abandonment of the rights and entitlements of Nationalists and Republicans as secured by that agreement.

‘This disastrous U-Turn by the SDLP indicates how willing they appear to be to surrender to the DUP and others demands for a return to Unionist majority rule.

‘The position articulated is evidence of a desperate desire by the SDLP to get into power without the actual mandate to do it,’ said Mr McGuinness.

And Sinn Féin President and West Belfast MP and MLA Gerry Adams has also weighed into the intense war of words whilst in Enniskillen on the campaign trail to support his party's Enniskillen by-election candidate Debbie Coyle.

Mr Adams expressed his confidence that the Enniskillen seat is winnable if Sinn Féin can maximise the nationalist vote. ‘Every vote will count but the feedback thus far on the canvas is very good.’

The Sinn Féin President also criticised the SDLP leader Durkan’s recent revelation of a major abandonment of that party’s position on power sharing and of the institutions set up under the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Adams said: ‘Debbie Coyle is an excellent candidate with a strong track record of work in the community and voluntary sectors.

‘She knows the issues bearing down on the people of Fermanagh and along with her colleagues on Fermanagh District Council, the Sinn Féin team has a first class programme focussed on tackling the many local issues of concern; including housing, transport infrastructure and car parking, tourism, the local economy and jobs, health and neighbourhood renewal.’

A Sinn Fein victory in the 17 September poll could see a major shift in the balance of power in the region, which was once a Unionist bastion.

Mr Adams has also criticised comments by SDLP leader Durkan in which he effectively called for the scrapping of partnership government in the North.

Mr Adams added: ‘What is being proposed by the SDLP leader is the abandonment of the principles of the Good Friday Agreement; and the principles of equality, and of partnership government, and the protections these provide for citizens.

‘Many nationalists will be deeply troubled by these ill considered and irresponsible comments which would effectively accept a return to Unionist majority rule.’
 
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