Assembly must have say, Empey tells Blair

Northern Ireland Assembly members must be given a say over the running of the North even if talks to restore power-sharing fail next month, the British government was told tonight.

Northern Ireland Assembly members must be given a say over the running of the North even if talks to restore power-sharing fail next month, the British government was told tonight.

In his speech to Ulster Unionists in Lurgan, Senior party member Reg Empey claimed the position of Stormont’s 108 Assembly members would become untenable if the North remained solely under direct rule after talks in Maidstone, Kent in mid September.

“The Assembly has been in suspension for nearly two years and if early indications are to be believed, some parties would be quite happy to dribble on in our present limbo until well after the local government and Parliamentary elections next year,” he said.

“This would result in ongoing suspension, possibly running beyond three years. This is unacceptable and is corrosive of the whole political process. The spectacle of 108 elected representatives with fresh mandates hanging around, unable to perform any real function while still being paid, is an outrage.

“The Prime Minister himself said at Lancaster House that he could not allow things to drift on any longer.”

The former Stormont economy minister said his party was concerned that the British government was preparing to soften its position on the need to reach agreement next month.

He called on Tony Blair to get a grip on the situation and insisted Northern Ireland could not stomach further direct rule.

With major decisions due on water charges and rates, future of schools and of local government, Sir Reg said the public would be slow to forgive Northern Ireland politicians if they had no say on these crucial issues.

“Ulster unionists are therefore resolved and even if total agreement is not reached on the outstanding matters preventing the formation of an executive, the Northern Ireland Assembly must have meaningful statutory function to perform in the governance of this province forthwith.

“Failure to provide such a role will render untenable the position of the Assembly and its members.”

Devolution and power-sharing has been suspended in Northern Ireland since October 2002 after allegations that the IRA was operating a spy ring at Stormont threatened to destroy the Good Friday Agreement.

Two attempts to revive the Assembly involving the Irish and British governments, the UUP, Sinn Féin and the IRA stumbled last year over concerns about the provisionals’ intentions.

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