N. Ireland Legislature Reconvenes

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

BELFAST, May 15 -- Some of Northern Ireland's most prominent sectarian adversaries, Protestants and Roman Catholics, gathered Monday to give peace and politics another chance, convening the province's local legislature for the first time since it dissolved in acrimony more than 3 1/2 years ago.

"This has to work; there is no other way forward for any of us," said Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, the political affiliate of the Irish Republican Army, which waged war against the British-led government here for three decades in a conflict that claimed more than 3,600 lives.

Some Protestant politicians expressed less enthusiasm, saying Monday that they would have to consult their constituents to measure support for reviving power-sharing.

Creating a local assembly in which Catholics and Protestants legislate together was a cornerstone of the 1998 Good Friday accords, which set out a framework for lasting peace. The IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups have been largely observing a cease-fire since the deal was signed, and last year's announcement by the IRA that it had disarmed has further calmed a province that is enjoying new prosperity.

Monday's hour-long opening session, in an ornate wood-paneled chamber in the imposing building known as Stormont, was a largely ceremonial next step toward cementing the peace. But even as the 108 lawmakers were settling into their elegant blue leather-backed chairs, the hatred that continues to destroy lives here became the morning's centerpiece.

Legislators observed a minute of silence for Michael McIlveen, a 15-year-old Catholic boy whom a gang of Protestant youths last week chased for half a mile, then bludgeoned to death.

While the assembly's long-term goals are peace, prosperity and home rule, both sides said that for the moment their aim is simply to reestablish a working legislature among people who have barely spoken to one another in their lifetimes.

Monday's first step was for legislators to file forward and sign the official registry indicating their membership, along with the notation "nationalist" for Catholics who favor reunification with the Republic of Ireland, "unionist" for Protestants who favor continued British rule and "other" for a handful somewhere in between.

The British government has signaled that it is losing patience with Northern Ireland politicians' inability to form a local government, which would take over from London in areas such as education, health care and transport. London has spent more than $160 million on lawmakers' salaries and expenses since the previous assembly collapsed in October 2002.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, whose government is a key player in the peace process, have set a deadline of Nov. 24 for the assembly to elect a slate of cabinet ministers to oversee day-to-day governance.

"We won't blink first," Peter Hain, the British minister in charge of Northern Ireland, said in a letter to the new assembly. Calling on legislators to "do what they were elected to do," Hain said that those who try to stall past the Nov. 24 deadline will "find themselves out of a job, without any pay, having to shut down their offices and going nowhere."

As the assembly opened on a rainy Belfast morning, all eyes were on the man widely seen as holding the assembly's future in his large hands: the Rev. Ian Paisley, the 6-foot-3 Protestant preacher who has loomed over Northern Irish politics for more than 40 years. People on both sides said that Paisley, who controls the largest voting bloc in the assembly, could scuttle the legislature if he follows through on his long-standing refusal to govern with Sinn Fein leaders.

Wearing a dark three-piece suit, Paisley sat impassively as Adams and McGuinness, who Paisley has called terrorists and killers, sat barely 10 feet away on the other side of the U-shaped row of desks. He did not acknowledge them.

As Adams and McGuinness signed the register in front of him, Paisley fiddled with a ballpoint pen.

Despite the IRA's insistence that it has fully disarmed, Paisley told reporters after the session that he still considers "the IRA/Sinn Fein" a single "terrorist" entity that is still armed and engaged in criminal activity. Although independent inspectors have verified that the IRA has effectively disarmed, they have said that some IRA members, as well as some Protestant paramilitary members, are still armed and engaged in illegal activity.

"This party will not have any association whatever with any party that is linked to terrorists, is linked to murder and is linked to crime," Paisley said after the session, his preacher's voice rising as he stood surrounded by members of his Democratic Unionist Party.

Paisley, who has long opposed the Good Friday deal, was asked whether he wasn't simply trying to "get the last blood from the republican stone" by objecting to Sinn Fein even after the IRA's move to disarm. "If I could get the last drop of blood from the republican stone, I would do it," he said.

Peter Robinson, Paisley's deputy, held out more hope and said that his party would soon begin consultations in the unionist community to measure support for the power-sharing government. He said that process could take months.

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