April 6, 2006

Blair, Ahern set deadline for N.Irish government

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
feuding 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 near the border with the Republic of Ireland.

Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern unveiled plans
to recall the Belfast assembly in May and give politicians six
weeks to form a decision-making executive.

If, as many expect, that target is missed, an absolute
deadline of November 24 will be set to re-establish
power-sharing between majority Protestants committed to links
with Britain and Roman Catholic nationalists who favor a united

Failure to agree would mean deferral of the assembly -- set
up under the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that largely
ended 30 years of violence -- and continued direct rule from

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 of the November limit, adding that if missed Dublin
and London would work to increase North-South cooperation.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which represents the
majority of pro-British Protestants and wants a step-by-step
approach, said it would not be dictated to by Dublin and
criticised the imposition of a deadline.

"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.

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.

It was a dispute over IRA activities that toppled the last
regional executive but the group has since pledged to down

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams welcomed Thursday's move:
"The two governments are saying to the Unionists, and
especially the DUP, that they have to decide if they are
prepared to join the rest of us in moving forward in


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, however. "This is very
much a gambler's last throw really," he said.

Irish premier Ahern accepted the hurdles but said he hoped
the prospect of seeing power slip away from them would bring
the province's politicians on board: "I don't want to be here
on November 24 thinking about another plan."

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.

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 whose
body was found on Tuesday at a hideout in northwestern Ireland.

Ahern said the "callous" shooting 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."

The United States welcomed Thursday's Anglo-Irish

"We urge full support for civilian policing throughout
Northern Ireland and an unequivocal commitment to the rule of
law and the renunciation of all paramilitary and criminal
activities," a White House spokesman said.

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