Britain may extend N. Ireland power-sharing deadline, hails Protestant 'breakthrough'

Monday, March 26, 2007

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Britain said Sunday it intends to try to hand power immediately to a new Catholic-Protestant administration for Northern Ireland -- but is open to Protestant demands for an extension to May.

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain said Saturday's decision by the major Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists, to reject his deadline of today would not spell the end of Britain's decade-old effort to forge a stable power-sharing administration.

Hain noted that the Democratic Unionists have pledged for the first time to forge a coalition with Sinn Fein, the major Catholic-backed party, by an unspecified date in May. Britain would do what it could to make sure this happened, he said.

"People said this would never happen and it is a breakthrough," he said.

The Democratic Unionists for years have refused to cooperate with Sinn Fein, citing its links to Irish Republican Army violence and crime. But significant peace moves -- the IRA disarmed and renounced violence in 2005, and Sinn Fein in January pledged to cooperate with the Northern Ireland police -- have undercut Democratic Unionists' hatred of Sinn Fein.

Hain signed an order Sunday clearing the way for the Northern Ireland Assembly -- the 108-member legislature that forms the bedrock for power-sharing -- to convene today so that it could elect all 12 members of the envisioned administration.

As the two largest parties, both the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein can block the nominations. While Sinn Fein has long called for power-sharing, the Democratic Unionists say they must first be certain that Sinn Fein fully supports law and order in this British territory.

The Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, said the Democratic Unionists' refusal to accept today's deadline "is disappointing, and it does create difficulties for the two governments."

The party's motion, made public Sunday, said a joint Catholic-Protestant administration "can make a real and meaningful improvement in the lives of all of the people of Northern Ireland." The Democratic Unionists pledged to "support and participate fully in a Northern Ireland executive if powers were devolved to it on an agreed date in May."

Until now, Britain has insisted that Monday was an "unbreakable" date: The Democratic Unionists had to vote in the assembly to appoint a fully functioning administration or Hain would dissolve the assembly and introduce a range of unpopular policies, including a new household water tax.

Hain stressed that he would shut down the assembly Tuesday if the Democratic Unionists refuse to comply.

Hain said that if he did close the assembly, reopening it would depend on the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, who needed to agree themselves on a common platform for government and a new date for launching their coalition.

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