May 15, 2006

N.Irish politicians push to revive local govt

By Anne Cadwallader

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

Progress is expected to be slow and few expect agreement
before a November deadline, if at all. Assembly members
gathered only briefly before the meeting was adjourned for a
garden party given by Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary
Peter Hain.

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 cut-off point 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


But others are skeptical.

The moderate architects of a 1998 peace deal that
established the Assembly have been superseded in popularity by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 a power-sharing government almost impossible.

"I think the odds are against doing a deal," said
independent security analyst, James Dingley, a former
University of Ulster lecturer on terrorism and political

"The DUP would very much like to get back into government
but governing with Sinn Fein is something they find repugnant
... If they do a deal I think it won't last very long because
the old problems will emerge."

Most believe any decision will go right to the wire.

"Within the next six-week period the indication is that
nothing will happen except talking," Assembly Deputy Speaker,
Sinn Fein's Francie Molloy, told Reuters. "I think it will be
pushed to the very last decision (date)."

DUP leader Ian Paisley will be key to breaking the
deadlock. The firebrand cleric has long refused to share power
with Sinn Fein until he is certain it has given up its ties to

"Let me make it very clear ... that this party will not
have any association in government with any party that has
links to terrorism, links to murders and links to crimes," he
told reporters after the opening session of the assembly.

There is widespread support in Northern Ireland for local
government but growing frustration at the impasse.

"They're just walking in today to walk out again. People
are absolutely fed up of it," said hospital porter Patrick
McColgan, taking part in a public services union protest
outside Stormont. "They should all get on with the job we
elected them to do."

Tensions continue to simmer in Northern Ireland despite the
peace ushered in by 1998's Good Friday Agreement: the Assembly
held a minute's silence for a 15-year-old Catholic schoolboy
beaten to death in a sectarian attack last week.

(Additional reporting by Kate Kelland in London)