/ 26 March 2007

Blair welcomes N Ireland power-sharing deal

British Prime Minister Tony Blair welcomed a power-sharing deal reached on Monday by Northern Ireland’s main Protestant and Catholic political parties.

”This is a very important day for the people of Northern Ireland … In a sense everything we’ve done in the last 10 years has been a preparation for this moment,” he said.

”The people of Northern Ireland have … said: ‘We want peace and power-sharing and people working together’, and the political leadership has then come in behind that and said: ‘We will deliver what the people want’,” he said.

Northern Ireland’s main Protestant and Catholic parties agreed on Monday to start sharing power on May 8 after their leaders put aside decades of hostility to hold an historic first meeting.

Hard-line Protestant cleric Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), sat side-by-side with Gerry Adams, head of the mainly Catholic Sinn Fein, to announce the deal.

”Today we’ve agreed with Sinn Fein that this date will be Tuesday May 8 2007,” Paisley said after the meeting at the Northern Ireland Assembly’s imposing building in Belfast. ”I believe we can lay the foundations for a better, peaceful and prosperous future for all the people of Northern Ireland,” Paisley said.

Adams welcomed the deal as marking ”the beginning of a new era of politics on this island”.

Britain and Ireland have been pushing Northern Ireland’s feuding parties for years to agree to share power, seeing it as a crucial step towards cementing peace in a province that has been riven by years of violence.

The DUP wants to maintain Northern Ireland’s links with Britain while Sinn Fein’s ultimate aim is a united Ireland.

The British government had told both sides they must start jointly running Northern Ireland’s day-to-day affairs on Monday or accept indefinite direct rule from London. But Paisley’s DUP said on Saturday it wanted a delay until May.

UK could accept delay

Britain has indicated it could accept a delay if all the Northern Irish parties agreed.

Paisley has always refused to talk to Adams because of Sinn Fein’s alliance with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) guerrilla group, which was responsible for nearly half of the 3 600 killings during 30 years of sectarian conflict in the province. But on Monday, Adams and Paisley sat within a few feet of each other around a table. There was no public handshake.

At the start of the meeting, about 10 Sinn Fein members, including Adams, walked up the building’s grand staircase and into the members’ dining room where Paisley was waiting, a Reuters reporter said.

Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain said earlier that if the meeting between Paisley and Adams went ahead it would be ”quite extraordinary”.

In the past Paisley has branded rivals from the province’s minority Catholic community terrorists. A peace deal nearly a decade ago has largely stemmed decades of sectarian bloodshed.

If no deal had been reached on Monday, the Irish government would have been given a greater role in Northern Ireland’s affairs, which the DUP would find unpalatable.

The assembly was set up under 1998’s Good Friday peace agreement. It was suspended in 2002 amid allegations of an IRA spy ring operating in the building.

Paisley opposed the 1998 pact and has rejected earlier power-sharing attempts. The IRA met Paisley’s central demand in 2005 when it pledged to disarm and pursue its aim of a united Ireland peacefully. — Reuters