Interesting partners for tug of war over committee

What the BBC’s Martina Purdy has described as a behind the scenes tug-of-war over a cross-party committee on the restoration of devolution, as proposed by the UUP/PUP Assembly Group leader Reg Empey, emerged onto the floor of the House of Commons during Northern Ireland Questions today[temporary link], and Secretary of State for Wales and Northern Ireland Peter Hain seems to want a liitle more time than had previously been suggested would be needed[subs req] – “Mr Hain will announce the creation of the committee by Friday, a Northern Ireland Office (NIO) spokesman said yesterday[Tuesday]” – It’s also worth noting who’s tugging from which side.As the Irish Times reported this morning[subs req] –

Mr Hain will announce the creation of the committee by Friday, a Northern Ireland Office (NIO) spokesman said yesterday, notwithstanding warnings yesterday and on Monday by DUP leader the Rev Ian Paisley that he would not sit on such a body as it would involve face-to-face engagement with Sinn Féin on UK constitutional matters.[added emphasis]

During NI Questions the SDLP MP Eddie McGrady queried such a committee’s relevance and suggested that it would reduce the importance of the debates in the [temporary] assembly even further

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): May I refer the Secretary of State to his statement that he would make a further proclamation this week about creating a restoration committee for Northern Ireland, which he hopes that the party leaders will attend? Does not he believe that that might frustrate the work of the Assembly, the primary purpose of which is to restore Executive functions? What gives him the hope that, for example, the party leaders, who will not come together in the Assembly, will do so outside it in a restoration committee? Does not that make the shadow Assembly of even less substance by transferring its primary function outside that body?

Mr. Hain: I am giving further consideration to representations from all the parties, including the hon. Gentleman’s, on the proposal for a committee to prepare for restored government. I am listening carefully to what people are saying, and there is a case for it. I know that he will understand that the proposal made by Sir Reg Empey of the Ulster Unionist party is not a model that I favour and that it has not found favour with the other parties. We must continue the consultations until I am in a position to move forward.[added emphasis]

Tugging the same way, although perhaps for different reasons, was the DUP leader Ian Paisley –

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Can the Secretary of State give me a categorical assurance that no committee from anywhere will be set up to conduct the negotiations? The negotiations were promised between the Government and the parties and there cannot be another set of negotiations running alongside them. We know that the Prime Minister and the Minister are coming to talk to us. Will the Secretary of State assure me that no committee with power to negotiate will be set up? He knows the attitude of the Democratic Unionist party to that. We would not take part in any such committee. Hon. Members should be reminded that Sinn Fein is currently boycotting the Assembly’s public meetings.

Mr. Hain: I believe that Sinn Fein should be at the Assembly’s public sittings along with all the other parties. I am consulting the right hon. Gentleman’s party along with the others about the proposal for a committee to prepare for restored government. I do not intend to give it any power to negotiate. I could neither do that nor force that on anyone. However, it would be helpful if there were a forum in which issues could be identified by all the parties. Negotiations will obviously take place with the Governments but there is an advantage to everyone seeing what is on the table before they take place.

And on the side of those who want the committee to be put in place is, naturally enough, the UUP leader Reg Empey

The UUP’s Sir Reg Empey said he hoped the assembly would be able to debate a motion calling for the establishment of a committee for the restoration of devolution.

“What we are asking the secretary of state to do is to allow a motion on the order paper for our next business to appoint a committee on the restoration of devolution,” he said.

“The general public would at least know that we were actually engaged in serious business.”

Tugging with them though is Sinn Féin, with certain conditions for the committee’s membership, as the SF president Gerry Adams made clear on Monday

Gerry Adams said afterwards such a committee would only be valuable if it featured the leaders of the main Northern Ireland party.

“It has to be leadership led,” the Sinn Fein leader said.

“There is no point having a small group meeting in this building, sitting twiddling thumbs.

“What we are looking for is a committee or series of committees on the restoration of devolution but it has to be leadership led.”

It’s also worth noting that rather than debating the formation of the committee in the [temporary] assembly, we have the various parties consulting, behind closed doors, with the Secretary of State for Wales and Northern Ireland.. So it goes.

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