Negotiations On N. Ireland Government In Jeopardy

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 26, 2007

BELFAST, March 25 -- Northern Ireland's rival Catholic and Protestant political parties engaged in a flurry of behind-the-scenes negotiations Sunday, racing against a deadline to agree to terms for a new power-sharing government or have London retain full control of the province's affairs.

The British government has given the parties until Monday to form a local government, which is seen as a critical step toward cementing peace following the more than three decades of sectarian war that ended with a cease-fire in 1997. But as of late Sunday, any chance of meeting the deadline appeared in serious jeopardy because the province's largest Protestant party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), insisted that the deadline be extended until May.

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, London's top official for the province, said Sunday that Britain would dissolve the 108-member local assembly and scrap plans for local management of day-to-day governance if no agreement were reached by Monday. He said Northern Ireland had achieved "fantastic success" in efforts toward creating a peaceful and prosperous society and warned, "It would be a great tragedy if the politicians managed to blow that success out of the water."

But in an interview with the BBC, Hain also left open the possibility that London would consider extending the deadline if the DUP and Sinn Fein, the province's largest Catholic party, reached an alternative agreement on a power-sharing deal. Hain said any such plan would have to include a specific date for when the parties could agree to begin working together.

"If there's another way forward that has certainty about it, of course I'm not going to turn my back on it," he said.

Hain also said it was "a sign of tremendous progress" that the DUP's leadership said Saturday that it would participate in a power-sharing government if the deadline were delayed six weeks, until May. In a statement made public Sunday, the party said a joint Catholic-Protestant government could make a "meaningful improvement in the lives of all of the people of Northern Ireland." The party also said it would "support and participate fully in a Northern Ireland executive if powers were devolved to it on an agreed date in May."

At a European Union meeting in Berlin, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern discussed the matter with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and said the DUP's wish for a six-week delay was "not something we can live with, it is not satisfactory to us."

Creating a local assembly in which Catholics and Protestants govern together was a cornerstone of the 1998 Good Friday accord, which set out a blueprint for creating a lasting peace. The first assembly collapsed in October 2002 in a storm of mutual distrust between the rival parties. Although the body officially reconvened in May 2006, officials have been unable to come up with a plan for power-sharing between the "nationalist" Catholics, who favor reunification with the Republic of Ireland, and the "unionist" Protestants, who favor continued British rule.

Officials of Sinn Fein, the political affiliate of the Irish Republican Army, have said they are willing to meet the Monday deadline and enter into a government headed by Ian Paisley, the outspoken DUP leader. As head of the province's largest party, Paisley would lead the new government, with a Sinn Fein official -- most likely deputy leader Martin McGuinness -- as the second-ranking official.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and other party officials have accused Paisley and the DUP of deliberately obstructing the power-sharing deal so they would not have to work with Catholics.

Many in Sinn Fein believe that Paisley, 80, is now willing to share power with Sinn Fein, despite spending decades denouncing it in fiery sermons. Many here say they have sensed a new flexibility in Paisley but believe he has failed to persuade hard-line elements in his party who oppose increasing Catholic power in the province.

"They've spent 40 years in their communities demonizing us," said Conor Murphy, a Sinn Fein legislator attending a Gaelic football match in Crossmaglen, a Catholic stronghold near the Irish border. "Paisley may want this, but he hasn't prepared the ground properly."

Murphy, who said he had been involved in the behind-the-scenes negotiations all weekend, said he believed the British government had "wobbled" on the deadline, allowing hard-line unionists to demand a delay that would undermine the process.

"The longer the British government indulges them, the longer this will go on," he said. "It's nonsense, really. Nothing is going to change in six weeks."

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