“this time really is different”

Secretary of State for Wales and Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, is waving his big stick, again, in the Guardian today, ending with the familiar, by now, line – “If locally elected politicians don’t like all this, the solution lies in their hands: taking their places at Stormont and, for the first time in over three years, earning their salaries by exercising self-government.” [Also available on the Guardian’s Commentisfree blog – Ed]

Some will say with misplaced confidence that we have been here before, that in Northern Ireland the “crunch” always recedes and the moment of truth never happens. But this time really is different. If political agreement to work together cannot be reached by November at the very latest, elections for a new assembly due in May 2007 will be cancelled. It would be ludicrous to again elect politicians who won’t do their jobs to an assembly that doesn’t exist.

Members of the assembly now being paid salaries and allowances – amounting to £85,000 per year – will lose them, with consequences both for them and the staff they employ. Northern Ireland will just have to leave them behind. For whatever the tangled history and bitterness, the island of Ireland faces the urgent common challenge of global competition. It faces common problems over energy security. As terrorism and violence has ended and society normalised, common problems such as crime and skills shortages have loomed.

So, if local politicians will not do their jobs, British direct-rule ministers will work with our counterparts in Dublin on commonsense north-south partnerships: practical cooperation on policing, tackling child offenders, establishing a single energy market and a common mobile-phone tariff. I and my ministerial team will drive forward reforms to abolish the 11-plus and open up educational opportunity to all. We will cut the number of local councils from 26 to seven, and public bodies from 154 to 75. We will introduce water charges and raise household rates to British levels (they currently average less than half).

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