UK vows not to ‘blink’ over Northern Ireland deadline

Britain vowed on Wednesday it would not back down over a November deadline for reaching a power-sharing deal in Northern Ireland as it prepared to host crucial talks with the province’s politicians.

Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain said he believed a deal was possible but stressed that London was serious about closing down Northern Ireland’s Stormont assembly if the politicians did not reach a deal by November 24.

”I’m definitely not going to blink … We need a 100% deal by then, not a 95% deal which could unravel later, but a 100% deal by midnight on November 24 or Stormont will shut down,” he said in an interview with Sky television.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern launch three days of talks with Northern Ireland’s parties in the Scottish town of St Andrews later on Wednesday.

The British government is billing the talks as a last chance to make progress before the November deadline, and the last time in what could be years for such high-level discussions.

Blair, who has made political settlement in Northern Ireland one of the cornerstones of his time in office, is due to step down next year, while Ahern will be campaigning for a third term in office in an election due in the next nine months.

For all the talk of St Andrews being make-or-break, however, participants know many ”final” deadlines have passed before.

While Northern Ireland politicians may reach a partial deal this week, full agreement to restore the Belfast-based assembly — mothballed since 2002 — is seen unlikely in Scotland given unresolved problems such as Catholic mistrust of the police and the resistance of pro-British hardliners to power-sharing.

”Nothing can or will be decided at St Andrews over the head of the people,” said Jim Allister, European MP for the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which supports British rule in Northern Ireland.

”Self evidently, there is much to be done and a great distance for some to travel.”

The DUP, which did not sign the 1998 peace deal that helped to end Northern Ireland’s 30-year sectarian conflict and which established the short-lived assembly, has long refused to sit in government with Irish nationalist Sinn Fein until it is convinced the party has severed links to terrorism and crime.

It wants a commitment from Sinn Fein — the Irish Republican Army’s political ally — to recognise Northern Ireland’s police, and also wants changes to the structures of regional government.

Sinn Fein, which ultimately wants to unite British-ruled Northern Ireland with the mainly Catholic Ireland, has long been sceptical of the province’s Protestant-dominated police force.

Allister’s comments, which echo similarly cautious remarks from other DUP leaders this week, contrast starkly with the more upbeat tone of Sinn Fein and the British and Irish government.

”I do know that the question is no longer about whether the DUP will do a deal, the question is about when the DUP will do a deal,” Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said in Belfast on Tuesday. — Reuters

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