May 15, 2006

N.Irish politicians push to revive local government

By Anne Cadwallader

BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland's regional parliament
met for the first time in nearly four years on Monday as
political enemies strove to overcome decades of mistrust and
agree on how to share power.

Progress is expected to be slow. Assembly members will
gather only briefly in the morning before the meeting is
adjourned, then politicians are due to attend a garden party
given by Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain later.

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.

"We won't blink about that," Hain told Reuters in a
telephone interview.

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

Hain was optimistic a deal could be done.

"I do think that there's a prospect of a new dawn breaking
for democracy and self-government in Northern Ireland...I think
the context is the right one for success to be achieved."

He pointed to a pledge last year by Irish Republican Army
paramilitaries -- who waged a bloody 30-year campaign against
British rule -- to end violence for good, and a decision last
month by pro-British hardliners to end a 16-year-old boycott of
a British-Irish parliamentary group as positive signs of


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

However, they face an uphill battle.

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.

It struggled to get off the ground and was suspended in
2002 after allegations that the IRA was involved in spying.
Britain has ruled directly from Westminster since then.

Since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the moderate
architects of the deal have been superseded in popularity by
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

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.

In spite of 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.

(Additional reporting by Kate Kelland in London)