/ 9 March 2007

Agree to power-sharing, Blair tells N Ireland

Britain and Ireland urged Northern Ireland’s politicians on Friday to agree to a power-sharing government after assembly elections in the province or face continued direct rule from London.

The vote, widely viewed as a test of support for joint rule, was dominated by the Protestant pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Catholic Sinn Fein, long time foes who favour reviving local government in theory but do not talk to each other.

With 78 of 108 seats decided from Wednesday’s provincial assembly election, firebrand preacher Ian Paisley’s DUP won 27 seats and Sinn Fein, allied to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and wanting union with the southern Republic of Ireland, secured 24 seats. Four other parties shared 27 seats.

”The basis upon which the election was called and fought was that people would then go into devolved government,” said British Prime Minister Tony Blair after meeting Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern in Brussels.

”The mandate that has been given to the parties from people in Northern Ireland is to get on and do the business.”

The two leaders repeated the threat to impose indefinite direct rule from London, with help from Dublin, if the parties fail to agree on a government by March 26.

Blair and Ahern have tried for nearly a decade to reach a lasting political settlement, but have been repeatedly stymied.

A 1998 peace deal largely ended three decades of violence in which 3 600 people were killed.

Open door

British Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain was meeting DUP and Sinn Fein officials separately on Friday to discuss their next moves.

Paisley has left the door open to power-sharing, to the dismay of some former supporters, but emphasises he must first be convinced of Sinn Fein’s commitment to peace. He said this week it had to ”turn from its evil ways.”

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams repeated on Friday that he was ready for power-sharing and said there was a need to be ”tolerant and patient” with Paisley’s party.

”If they end up in the institutions, as we think they will with the rest of us, then we forgive them for their colourful language,” he said.

There was little support in the election for radicals who accuse Sinn Fein of betraying the IRA’s three-decade fight against British rule, or for those unionists who believe there should be no talks with anyone linked to the IRA.

Also sidelined were more moderate parties whose own bid at power-sharing collapsed five years ago, leaving political paralysis. The last assembly never sat for a full day after it was elected in 2003.

Blair would like an agreement before he steps down this year. It could also suit Ahern, as he faces re-election. — Reuters