Britain will shut down Northern Ireland’s legislature and forge a stronger partnership with the Irish government if the province’s Catholic and Protestant politicians fail to reach a power-sharing deal by Nov. 24, Prime Minister Tony Blair said Thursday.
Blair, speaking alongside Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, issued his ultimatum after several hours of talks with five local parties at Stormont Parliamentary Building, the would-be center of a Catholic-Protestant administration at the heart of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday accord.
If the deadlock cannot be broken by the deadline, Blair said, both governments would abandon their eight-year effort to promote power-sharing and instead would jointly develop policies in Northern Ireland over the heads of local politicians — an approach designed to increase pressure on Protestants, who oppose Irish involvement in Northern Ireland affairs.
“This is the last chance for this generation, really, to make this process work. We’ve come a long way, but we need to get the rest of the way now,” said Blair, who is widely expected to step down as prime minister and Labour Party leader in the next year.
“We’re in a period now where we have to achieve this. If we don’t do that, we’re off on a totally different track,” agreed Ahern, who like Blair rose to power in 1997, but faces his own uncertain re-election next year.
Nov. 24 timetable
The two published a timetable that specified key events on the path to resurrecting power-sharing by Nov. 24. The coalition would be led by the extremes of opinion: the Protestants of the Democratic Unionist Party and the Catholics of Sinn Fein, the party linked to the Irish Republican Army.
Last year, the IRA handed over its weapons stockpiles to disarmament officials and pledged that its 1997 cease-fire would be permanent — both landmarks in peacemaking that Blair and Ahern hoped would make a Democratic Unionist-Sinn Fein coalition feasible.
The Good Friday pact of 1998 envisioned power-sharing as the best way to promote reconciliation between the province’s British Protestant majority and Irish Catholic minority. But while paramilitary cease-fires have largely held, political compromise has proved impossible to sustain.
A previous four-party coalition led by moderates suffered several breakdowns because of chronic conflict between Protestants and Sinn Fein, and collapsed in 2002 over an IRA spying scandal. A year later, voters rejected moderates in favor of the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, a much tougher combination for power-sharing.
Paisley draws line in the sand
Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley insists he will not share a Cabinet table with Sinn Fein until the IRA disbands and Sinn Fein drops its decades-old opposition to Northern Ireland’s police force.
Paisley, 80, said he told Blair and Ahern “very clearly and very forcibly where we stood. There was no change in our policy. ... And they wouldn’t be making us do anything that is against the principles we have espoused.”
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams — whose party wants Northern Ireland to be taken out of the United Kingdom and steered into the Republic of Ireland — said his first choice was still to form a Cabinet alongside the Democratic Unionist Party.
“If the DUP aren’t up for that, then the rest of us can’t hang about waiting,” said Adams, who supported the prime ministers’ “total commitment” to the Nov. 24 deadline.
Blair and Ahern, in a joint statement, said both governments would publish an experts’ report Oct. 2 assessing the activities of the IRA and other outlawed groups. Its findings could prove critical in determining whether the Democratic Unionists agree to cooperate with Sinn Fein. Underscoring its significance, Ahern and Blair are expected to return to Belfast that week.
Salaries in the balance
Without a deal, Blair said, the salaries and benefits of the 108 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly — worth about $150,000 each annually — would be cut off Nov. 24.
“People in Northern Ireland are impatient for progress and will not tolerate a political process which stretches out indefinitely. We are convinced that November is the outer limit of an acceptable timeframe,” they said in their statement.
They said failure would lead, in December, to a British-Irish summit to explore “new partnership arrangements that would need to be put in place to ensure our effective joint stewardship of the Good Friday agreement.”
Thursday marked the first time Blair and Ahern have overseen multiparty negotiations in Northern Ireland since December 2004, when a potential power-sharing deal collapsed over the IRA’s refusal to permit photographs or any other public record of its disarmament, a key Protestant demand. The IRA subsequently disarmed in secret, but Paisley and police chiefs say the IRA has kept some guns.