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Last Updated:  Monday, 14 October, 2002, 11:23 GMT 12:23 UK
Q&A: Assembly suspension

What has happened in Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid has ordered the suspension of devolved government in Northern Ireland.

This means that from midnight Monday all the functions of the power-sharing executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont will now be taken over by ministers appointed by London.

The elected assembly members will no longer have any power to pass bills and the ministers will no longer be able to make decisions.

Why did he take this decision?

Dr Reid said he acted to protect the Good Friday Agreement.

Ulster Unionist leader and First Minister David Trimble said he and his ministers would resign if Sinn Fein was not excluded from the executive amid allegations of republican spying.

The government has concluded that the least worst option would be suspension of the institutions.

This isn't the first time that this has happened, is it?

This is the fourth suspension of the institutions since devolution first began in late 1999.

The first suspension began early in 2000 when David Trimble made his first threat to walk out because of a lack of movement by the IRA on decommissioning.

He returned to power in May that year after a deal with republicans which would see the IRA begin moves to get rid of arms.

Then in the summer of 2001, the process ground to a halt for a second time as unionists accused republicans of dragging their feet over decommissioning.

The impasse was resolved in October 2001 when the IRA announced it had put some weapons "beyond use", starting the process.

So what caused this suspension?

Unionists are simply not convinced that republicans are fully committed to peaceful politics.

They cite the case of three alleged IRA men in Colombia, the investigation into the break-in of the Castlereagh police station, sporadic street violence and, most recently, the spying allegations.

Quite simply, trust has disappeared.

Do people support what's happened?

There are divisions over the current situation. What complicates the picture is that the practical work of the assembly has begun to make an impact on people not used to having decisions taken on their own doorstep.

It is the first time in three decades that decisions involving health, education, agriculture and other major areas have been taken by locally-elected representatives.

What happens now?

Firstly, a team of four London ministers will share out the 10 executive briefs and take over decision-making.

The salaries of the Stormont ministers and assembly members will be cut by a third under the terms of the suspension.

They will still be able to use their offices for constituency business. But this will be reviewed at the end of the year if suspension continues.

Dr Reid has asked the outgoing executive members to "advise" the new ministers. He has denied that this is a "shadow administration" which allows the outgoing ministers to have any decision making powers.

Dr Reid wants the members of the Policing Board to retain their positions, scrutinising and overseeing the continuing reforms.

The secretary of state has also stressed the suspension is open ended. But both London and Dublin want the parties to sit down and talk through the problems.

There is a deadline of sorts. Elections for the assembly are due in May 2003. Only new legislation can delay these elections. The DUP has called for the elections to be held now, arguing that a new mandate is needed before negotiations.

In wider terms, the two governments hope that talks can help rebuild trust between the parties. But there is also fear that a political vacuum could lead to more violence on the streets.

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