April 6, 2006

Blair, Ahern set Nov deadline for N.Irish govt

By Paul Hoskins

ARMAGH (Reuters) - Britain and Ireland set a November
deadline on Thursday for restoring Northern Ireland's regional
administration in a final push to persuade the province's
warring politicians to share power.

"The moment has come as we always knew it would for the
ultimate decision," British Prime Minister Tony Blair told a
news conference in County Armagh, close to the Irish border
with Northern Ireland.

Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern unveiled plans
to recall the Belfast assembly -- set up under 1998's Good
Friday peace agreement to end 30 years of violence -- in May
and give politicians six weeks to form a decision-making

They set an absolute deadline of November 24 for the
re-establishment of power sharing between majority Protestants
committed to links with Britain and Roman Catholic nationalists
who favor a united Ireland.

Failure to agree would mean deferral of the assembly and
continued direct rule from London. It would also result in the
severance of assembly members' salaries -- which have cost 85
million pounds ($149 million) since the institution was
suspended more than three years ago.

"At that point we close the chapter or we close the book,"
Blair said.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which represents much
of the province's Protestant majority, said it was not happy
with the proposal and would not be dictated to by Dublin.

"Entrance to government cannot be dependent on a date but
only when terror and crime carried out by those allied to a
political party is gone forever," DUP leader Ian Paisley said
in a statement.

The DUP refuses to share power with the Irish Republican
Army's political ally Sinn Fein -- the dominant nationalist
party -- until it is convinced the IRA is out of business.

Sinn Fein chief negotiator Martin McGuinness said his party
was considering its position, state broadcaster RTE reported.


The Belfast assembly was put on ice in 2002 amid a dispute
over the activities of the IRA, which has since pledged to down
arms after a bloody three-decade campaign to end British rule
in the province.

Ahern acknowledged differences that needed to be addressed
but said he doubted whether Northern Ireland's elected
representatives would want to see power slip away from them.

"I don't want to be here on November 24 thinking about
another plan," Ahern said.

Breaking the political stalemate before the end of this
year is seen as crucial as the Irish government will be tied up
with a general election in the first half of 2007 and Britain
could face a period of political transition if Blair steps

"If they could get the institutions up and running properly
before Blair resigns then Northern Ireland will go down as a
positive -- he can tick it off as one of the big political
issues he did get sorted out," said John Curtice, politics
professor at Strathclyde University.

Eamon Phoenix, politics lecturer at Stranmillis College in
Belfast said it was unlikely the DUP would be in any hurry to
bow to pressure from Blair or Ahern. "I think this is very much
a gambler's last throw really," he said.

The latest bid by London and Dublin to push forward the
peace process has been overshadowed by the murder of Denis
Donaldson, a Sinn Fein official revealed as a British spy.

The body of Donaldson, a convicted IRA bomber, was found on
Tuesday in a hideout in northwestern Ireland. He had been shot.

Ahern said Donaldson's "callous" murder was a brutal
reminder of Northern Ireland's violent history and that
Thursday's strategy was "about putting that past behind us once
and for all."

(Additional reporting by Michael Smith in Dublin and
Madeline Chambers in London)