Northern Ireland Faces March 7 Election

The Associated Press
Tuesday, January 30, 2007; 5:53 PM

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Northern Ireland will elect a new legislature March 7 that will determine the fate of power-sharing, Britain announced Tuesday in swift reply to an IRA-linked political party's decision to support the police.

The prime ministers of Britain and Ireland, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, said they hoped a new Northern Ireland Assembly would produce what its predecessor failed to achieve _ a coalition that unites Protestant hard-liners with Irish Republican Army veterans.

Both premiers warned the two biggest parties in the British territory _ the Protestants of the Democratic Unionists and the Catholics of the IRA-allied Sinn Fein _ this would be their last chance to cooperate. Previous deadlines have passed without consequences.

Speaking after a London meeting, Blair and Ahern said the new assembly must form a 12-member Cabinet within a week after the election, and be ready to receive control of most Northern Ireland government departments by March 26. Failure would mean the assembly's abolition the next day.

"We should be very clear, there is no point in having elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly unless it's for the purpose of forming a power-sharing executive out of it by the 26th of March," Blair said.

Power sharing was the central goal of the Good Friday peace pact of 1998, but a four-party coalition collapsed in 2002 amid incessant Protestant-Sinn Fein arguments over the IRA's future. Since then, Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley has stressed he will cooperate only after Sinn Fein accepts British law and order.

Sinn Fein took a big step Sunday when a party conference voted to begin cooperating with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which is predominantly Protestant. A report released Tuesday also found the IRA to be complying fully with its July 2005 promise to renounce violence for political purposes.

The report by the Independent Monitoring Commission, a four-man panel that analyzes paramilitary behavior in Northern Ireland, said IRA members had committed no shootings or assaults for more than a year, while IRA leaders had made recent progress in persuading members to withdraw from criminal rackets.

"I never thought I would hear myself saying this," said commission member John Grieve, a former commander of Scotland Yard's anti-terror unit, which once toiled to stop IRA bombings of London. "But instructions from the IRA's commanders have been clear and consistent, and terrorism and violence have been abandoned."

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams called on his supporters to begin helping the Police Service of Northern Ireland immediately, and not to wait for the March power-sharing deadline.

"We are calling on people in the community to cooperate with the police to solve crime and take criminals off the streets," Adams said following a strategy meeting in Dublin with more than 50 senior party officials.

But Democratic Unionist leaders kept picking holes in Sinn Fein-IRA commitments and sought more evidence that their longtime enemies were irreversibly committed to peace. They refused to promise to cooperate by March 26 until Sinn Fein backed its words with pro-police deeds.

Democratic Unionist deputy leader Peter Robinson noted that Tuesday's report on IRA activity, while broadly positive, did say that some IRA members were still smuggling fuel, running tax scams and other illegal rackets.

"There is a clear requirement on Sinn Fein to discipline any of its members that are involved in criminal activity. It is incumbent on them to report any such activity to the police," Robinson said.


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