Viewpoint: Assembly at crisis point
The weaknesses in the Stormont system of power-sharing have been thrown into sharp focus by the row over the withdrawal of funding for a loyalist-backed project. Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie carried out her threat, but in doing so she has split the executive and precipitated a crisis in the five-months-old Assembly.
It remains to be seen if her decision can be overturned on legal grounds, and the real surprise is that the challenge came not from Farset, which handles the Conflict Transformation Initiative on behalf of the UDA-linked UPRG, but from Finance Minister Peter Robinson. He oversees the budget for the £1.2m project, over three years, and he accuses the Minister of going against legal advice and breaking the ministerial code.
If Ms Ritchie is right, and the CTI contract obliges the UDA to begin decommissioning weapons and stop violence and criminality, Mr Robinson may have to consider his position. If she is wrong, and her decision is found to be illegal, she may have no alternative but to consider hers.
In any case, the credibility of the executive has been damaged in the eyes of the public. Two ministers, representing the SDLP and DUP, have disagreed vehemently over whether public money should be used for a project supported by an illegal organisation. If the executive cannot agree that conditions should be attached to such money - regardless of the legal niceties - what respect does it deserve?
The majority of people agree with Ms Ritchie that if money which has been targeted at removing paramilitary activity from deprived communities is having little or no effect on the UDA, it should be removed. The UDA was involved in violence before and after she gave her 60-day ultimatum - having heard the Chief Constable say he wouldn't give them 50p - so the paramilitaries should have known what the reaction would be.
Either they have no control over their membership or they were unwilling to bow to the popular demand for an end to paramilitarism. In either case, there was no justification for continuing to support a project which had been devised by the direct rule administration to help the UDA transform itself. The project has to be transformed.
Whatever happens now, and there is a heated debate about the legality of the minister's decision, the money must not be lost, as we have argued from the start. Ms Ritchie herself has said she is determined to help deprived loyalist communities through other means - and there is no reason to bypass Farset, which is a respected conduit for government funds.
The work of transformation must continue, but targets for an end to paramilitarism must be met. Just as important, the executive must accept collective responsibility on all major decisions, and leadership must be exerted, or its days will be numbered.