May 15, 2006

N.Irish politicians to push to revive local government

By Anne Cadwallader

BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland's regional parliament
will meet for the first time in nearly four years on Monday as
political enemies strive to overcome decades of hatred and
mistrust to forge agreement on sharing power.

Progress is expected to be slow. Assembly members will
gather only briefly in the morning before the meeting is
adjourned -- politicians are due at a garden party hosted by
Northern Ireland's Secretary of State in the afternoon.

They have six weeks to agree on the make-up of a local
government for the British-ruled province before a summer break
and then a final deadline of November 24.

If they have not agreed by then, Britain and Ireland have
vowed to scrap the Stormont assembly and to continue direct
rule from Westminster with greater input from Dublin.

"It's make your mind up time," Northern Ireland Secretary
Peter Hain told BBC radio on Monday.

"What we've had in the past is deadlines that have
continually shifted in Northern Ireland. We have now got to the
point ... where the politicians really have to stop touring
around in a political caravan and find a permanent place at

The Northern Ireland Assembly, born out of a 1998 peace
deal, gave Irish nationalists and pro-British "unionists" joint
control of the region's affairs and was seen as crucial to
cementing peace after three decades of sectarian conflict.

But it struggled to get off the ground and was suspended in
2002 following allegations Irish Republican Army paramilitaries
were involved in spying. Britain has ruled directly from
Westminster since then.


London and Dublin decided earlier this year to recall the
assembly in a fresh bid to get opposing sides to agree an

But they face an uphill battle.

Since the Good Friday Agreement, the moderate architects of
the deal have been superseded in popularity by their more
hardline counterparts -- the IRA's allies, Sinn Fein, and the
pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) -- making agreement
on the make-up of a power-sharing government almost impossible.

Outspoken cleric and DUP leader, Ian Paisley, refuses to
talk to Sinn Fein, let alone sit in government with the party
until it is convinced the IRA has ended violence for good.

Despite an IRA pledge last year to do so and positive
statements on the organization's progress from the province's
ceasefire watchdog, Paisley remains unconvinced.

Last week, Sinn Fein nominated him as First Minister of the
assembly, with its own Martin McGuinness as deputy in an effort
to break the deadlock but few expect much progress given
Paisley's long history of bitter enmity toward republicans.

Nor do recent comments from the DUP hold out much hope of
swift change in attitude.

"Sinn Fein/IRA's present behavior shows they still do not
meet the 'Entry Conditions' and are not fit to be in
government," the party says on its Web site, adding: "Sinn Fein
has not shown any evidence that it could ever meet the 'Entry

(Additional reporting by Kate Kelland in London)