British, Irish premiers unveil plan to revive Northern Ireland power-sharing

Friday, October 13th 2006, 11:09 am
By: News On 6

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland (AP) _ The British and Irish governments unveiled a complex plan Friday for resurrecting a Catholic-Protestant administration for Northern Ireland, the intended lynchpin of lasting peace and stability in the British territory.

The prime ministers of Britain and Ireland, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, jointly unveiled their proposals after failing to broker an agreement between Northern Ireland's polar extremes: the Protestants of the Democratic Unionist party and the Catholics of Sinn Fein.

The premiers gave both parties a month to accept their blueprint. If either side refused, they warned, the three-year quest to revive power-sharing, the central goal of the Good Friday peace accord of 1998, would be abandoned.

``People are overcoming a number of entrenched positions over many years,'' Blair said at the end of three days of negotiations at a luxury golf resort near this seaside university town.

The plan calls for Gerry Adams' Sinn Fein, which represents the Irish Catholic minority, to make the first move in a series of coordinated steps with the Democratic Unionists, who represent the British Protestant majority.

Sinn Fein's executive board would be required first to signal the party's abandonment of its decades-old opposition to the Northern Ireland police. Ian Paisley, in exchange, would order his Democratic Unionist party to elect himself and a senior Sinn Fein figure to be joint leaders of Northern Ireland's new administration.

The plan said Paisley and Sinn Fein's nominee would not receive any powers until months later, however, during which time Paisley's Protestant followers would be able to test whether Sinn Fein was truly supporting the police. If they deemed that Sinn Fein had embraced British law and order for the first time in its history, the way would be clear for the Northern Ireland Assembly to elect the rest of the administration, probably in March.

Shortly afterward, the coalition would receive substantial government powers _ including, for the first time, over police and justice _ from Britain. The plan specified March 26 as a target date.

Britain pledged to postpone its plans to enact a series of measures in Northern Ireland concerning schools, property tax increases and new water charges _ moves that, in most cases, both Catholics and Protestants opposed. Blair said a local administration, if formed, should have the opportunity to choose its own policies on all those matters.

Paisley, whose hard-line party triumphed in the 2003 Assembly elections and holds veto power over forming any administration, earlier said he was not willing to negotiate with Sinn Fein on its terms for accepting the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

The traditionally Protestant-dominated police force is midway through a 10-year reform program that has already boosted its Catholic officers from 8 percent to 20 percent. But police still face hostility when operating in Sinn Fein power bases.

The IRA killed 1,775 people _ including nearly 300 police officers _ from 1970 to a 1997 cease-fire. The outlawed group last year formally abandoned its campaign to overthrow Northern Ireland by force and handed its weapons stockpiles to disarmament officials.

Those IRA peace moves, the most dramatic products of a 13-year-old peace process, greatly boosted hopes of forging a coalition led by the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein. But relations between the two long-time foes remain distant, with Paisley still refusing to talk directly to Sinn Fein negotiators.

Northern Ireland's previous coalition _ which collapsed in 2002 over an IRA spying scandal inside government circles _ was led by Protestant and Catholic moderates, but included the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein. The four-party coalition ran a dozen British government departments, but Britain's Northern Ireland Office retained control over justice and policing.

Sinn Fein insisted it could not endorse the police unless ultimate government oversight of the police was transferred from Britain to local _ and potentially Sinn Fein _ hands.