The British and Irish prime ministers said Thursday that Northern Ireland’s legislature will reconvene on May 15 for the first time in more than three years in a final push to revive a power-sharing agreement between Protestants and Catholics.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, said the legislature will have until late November to elect an administration led by the Democratic Unionists, the major British Protestant party, and Sinn Fein, the major Irish Catholic party.
The leaders warned the legislature would be dissolved for good if the Democratic Unionists maintained their refusal to cooperate with Sinn Fein.
“There is ample scope to find agreement,” Blair said at a news conference in this city 40 miles southwest of Belfast. “But be in no doubt: At the conclusion of this period we either resolve to go forward on the basis of mature democracy, or we call time on this and seek another way to go.”
Blair and Ahern jointly brokered Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord that called for a power-sharing agreement.
Britain suspended the legislature and previous administration in October 2002 amid an IRA spying scandal that fueled Protestant hostility to working with Sinn Fein. Since then, Blair and Ahern have overseen several protracted negotiating sessions that have failed to narrow the rift.
“They may not have an opportunity again for quite some time if they cannot make it work on this occasion,” Ahern said. “It is time therefore to talk and it’s time to agree.”
Democratic Union leader Ian Paisley has said, however, he won’t cooperate with Sinn Fein until the Irish Republican Army abandons involvement in criminal rackets and disbands. The IRA announced last year it had disarmed and renounced violence for political purposes, but Paisley has accused the group of retaining weapons.
His suspicions were fueled by Tuesday’s assassination of Denis Donaldson, an IRA veteran and former Sinn Fein official who confessed in December to having been a British spy for two decades. The IRA, which traditionally had a policy of executing informers, denied involvement.
Donaldson had been one of three people charged in the 2002 spying scandal. He was accused of funneling thousands of pilfered British documents to the IRA.
But in December, he claimed he had been staging the document thefts for the benefit of his British intelligence overseers, who allegedly wanted to topple the power-sharing experiment.
Armagh is the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, housing the headquarters of the island’s Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland, an Anglican body. It has suffered one of the highest per-capita death rates in the past 37 years of the Northern Ireland conflict, which has left more than 3,600 dead.
Blair and Ahern were expected to meet later with the leaders of the Catholic Church, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist churches, as well as some of Northern Ireland’s most prominent business leaders.