NI assembly 'could be working by March'

British and Irish governments set out timetable for restoring power-sharing
British and Irish governments set out timetable for restoring power-sharing

A devolved executive in Northern Ireland could be back up and running by next March if local politicians agree to a new timetable laid out by the British and Irish governments.

"I think there is the basis for a way forward," Tony Blair said after three days of tense talks at St Andrews in Scotland.

He and Irish taoiseach Bertie Ahern today presented the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Sinn Fein and the other parties with a plan for restoring power to Stormont.

The parties have until November 10th to respond, and the assembly must nominate a first minister and deputy first minister for Northern Ireland by November 24th. If it fails, or the deal is rejected, the assembly will be dismantled and direct rule imposed indefinitely.

If agreed, the ministers - most likely with DUP leader Ian Paisley as first minister and Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, as his deputy - would not take power immediately but would help prepare the ground for the executive to take power.

The Northern Ireland assembly at Stormont has not sat for four years, it was suspended amid allegations of an IRA spy ring in October 2002.

A referendum or an election would be held to give the new executive an electoral mandate and on March 14th, members of a new Northern Ireland assembly would be nominated. Devolved government would be restored 12 days later, on March 26th.

Speaking from St Andrews this afternoon, Mr Blair said the process would be "very difficult", noting: "Nobody finds it easy or comfortable to sit in an executive with people with respect of whom they've been deeply opposed or hostile.

"It's never going to be easy. But we wouldn't be saying what we are saying unless we had some reasonable expectation we could do it."

Mr Ahern acknowledged the past few days had involved "fairly intensive, difficult and challenging discussions", but said: "I believe we have all the elements that can bring satisfaction to all these issues."

The initial reaction from the DUP was cautious, but Mr Paisley said: "Unionism can be confident that its interests are being advanced.The days of the gunmen in government are hopefully over forever." However, he warned the issue of policing remained critical.

Under today's plans, Mr Blair said power-sharing would begin with the appointment of a first minister and deputy, and only after there was "real confidence that people are working together well" would responsibility for policing be transferred to the executive.

Mr Paisley said: "It is deeds not deadlines that count - delivering on the critical issue of policing and the rule of law starts now.

"Everyone who aspires to sit in a position of power in Northern Ireland must by word and by deed demonstrate their unequivocal support for the law of the land and those who enforce it."

Giving his reaction afterwards, Mr Adams said republicanism had "delivered big time" in the past few years and would keep delivering - but so should unionists.

He appealed for them "to come at this in a way that looks at all the differences we have been able to set aside even in the last ten years and [look] at the potential to build a new Ireland".

Reaching a settlement was an "enormous prize", the Sinn Fein leader said, adding: "Common sense, political realism and the interests of all our people demand that we achieve this."


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