/ 26 March 2007

Hopes rise for N Ireland self-rule deal

The prospect of a first-ever meeting between rival Northern Irish leaders on Monday raised hopes for a last-ditch power-sharing deal in the province, albeit delayed, hours before a crunch deadline.

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain admitted the midnight Monday deadline [local time] could slip by a few weeks, if a deal was struck between rival Catholic- and Protestant-backed leaders Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley.

But Hain, who signed an order at the weekend restoring power to Belfast despite the last-minute stand-off, also reiterated that Britain is ready to return power to London if there is no deal.

On Saturday Paisley’s Democratic Unionists (DUP), who favour remaining part of Britain, agreed to form an executive with Adams’s Sinn Fein — but they want to delay devolution by six weeks, until May, to overcome outstanding hurdles.

On Monday Hain confirmed that Adams was expected to meet firebrand leader Paisley during the day for unprecedented talks likely to cover a possible date for restoring full power-sharing.

”If the meeting between Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams goes ahead then it is quite extraordinary … If after the last 40 years and more they can talk, then anything and everything is possible,” Hain told BBC’s Radio Four.

If the two men can strike a deal before the midnight deadline, ”we are in entirely new territory, which makes the prospect of devolution and stable devolved government much more likely”, he added.

”I am not worried about a deadline going over a few weeks, if we have something that has never happened before,” he added.

On Sunday Hain signed an order restoring devolved powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly, in which the DUP and Sinn Fein dominate after elections earlier this month, to allow the parties to try to form an executive.

But the British minister warned on Monday that, if there is no deal, London remains ready to see power return to London.

”If it doesn’t happen today [Monday], then the dissolution follows at one minute past midnight or at least tomorrow,” he said.

Hain said at the weekend that Paisley had twice attempted to persuade him and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to introduce emergency legislation on Monday to implement the six-week delay.

The DUP has refused to share power until Sinn Fein — the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) — accepts the rule of British law and supports the police force and the IRA renounces violence.

If the two parties reach agreement before the deadline, Paisley is likely to become the province’s first minister, with Sinn Fein chief negotiator Martin McGuinness his probable deputy.

The Northern Ireland Assembly was created by the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that largely brought an end to three decades of sectarian violence in the province.

It has been suspended since October 2002 when allegations surfaced of a republican spy-ring operating at the assembly buildings, and Northern Ireland has been governed directly from London ever since. — AFP