Protestant-Catholic impasse unresolved as deadline passes to accept Northern Ireland deal

Friday, November 10th 2006, 8:44 am
By: News On 6

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ A deadline for Northern Ireland parties to accept a new formula for power-sharing passed Friday with the impasse between rival Protestant and Catholic parties still unresolved.

The British and Irish governments issued a joint statement vowing to press ahead in hopes that the Protestants of the Democratic Unionists and the Catholics of Sinn Fein would meet the governments' next line in the sand _ a planned Nov. 24 vote to elect the top two figures in a future Catholic-Protestant administration.

``There is much to be done and there is a responsibility on all to play their part. We will work actively with the parties to complete this task and clear the way for a new era for the people of Northern Ireland,'' said the statement from Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain and Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern.

In an Anglo-Irish plan unveiled last month at the end of a negotiating summit in St. Andrews, Scotland, both governments emphasized that Sinn Fein must begin supporting Northern Ireland's police force as part of the deal to revive a cross-community administration, the central goal of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday pact of 1998.

``That settlement must rest on the two foundations of support for power-sharing and the political institutions, and support for policing and the rule of law,'' Hain and Ahern said. ``Securing these objectives remains the priority of the two governments and of everyone in Northern Ireland.''

However, while the St. Andrews document was filled with deadlines, it specified nothing about when, and how, Sinn Fein should demonstrate its support for law and order. This reflected the reality that such a step would prove bitterly divisive for Sinn Fein _ a party that supported the Irish Republican Army's killing of nearly 300 police officers during its failed 1970-97 campaign to overthrow Northern Ireland by force.

But Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley isn't willing to give Sinn Fein wiggle room on the issue. He insists the Democratic Unionists will not take the first, symbolically potent step to form a coalition with their enemies unless Sinn Fein pledges support for the police at the same time.

According to the St. Andrews formula, the Northern Ireland Assembly must elect Paisley and Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness to the top two power-sharing posts by Nov. 24.

If the Democratic Unionists refuse, the governments say, the 108-member assembly will be abolished. If they accept, the assembly would elect the rest of the administration March 14. Britain would transfer substantial powers to local hands March 26.

The Democratic Unionists, who published a formal response to the St. Andrews package Thursday night, said they were unwilling to accept McGuinness _ a veteran IRA commander _ as a government partner unless he supports the police in his oath of office. Sinn Fein rejects this as politically impossible.

``The governments stressed before, during and after the St. Andrews talks that the twin pillars for agreement are DUP support for power-sharing and Sinn Fein support for policing,'' said the Democratic Unionist document, which was approved by the party's assembly members and 140-member executive. ``Clearly, as Sinn Fein is not yet ready to take the decisive step forward on policing, the DUP is not required to commit to any aspect of power-sharing in advance of such certainty.''

The 13-year-old peace process in this British territory has repeatedly ground to a halt amid arguments over which side should move first. The last huge obstacle, IRA disarmament, destroyed the previous power-sharing administration that existed in Northern Ireland from December 1999 to October 2002.

On that occasion, Nobel Peace Prize laureate David Trimble led his moderate Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, into a 12-member coalition that included two Sinn Fein members, including McGuinness as education minister, in advance of any IRA disarmament. The Good Friday pact said the IRA should fully disarm by mid-2000 but, in an echo of the current impasse, didn't specify when the process must start.

When the IRA refused to move, Protestant voters turned to the uncompromising Paisley, who opposed the Good Friday pact. Paisley's Democratic Unionists trounced Trimble in the 2003 assembly elections, a vote that also saw Sinn Fein claim pole position among Catholic voters.

Paisley's not-an-inch approach, combined with Sinn Fein's ambitions to wield power, appear to have forced dramatic movement from the IRA. The outlawed group last year surrendered its weapons stockpiles and declared that its 1997 cease-fire would be permanent, moves designed to make a Democratic Unionist-Sinn Fein coalition possible.

But Sinn Fein says it cannot abandon its anti-police policy without convening a special party conference _ and refuses to take this step until after McGuinness is in office.