Ahern, Blair restate deadline on devolution

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Logo of the Northern Ireland Assembly

Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have stated that the November 24 deadline for formation of a devolved, power-sharing government is final and that it is the last chance for parties to restore devolution in Northern Ireland. The two prime ministers met in Belfast at Stormont today with the major parties about the deadline.

Blair stated he would shut down the Northern Ireland Assembly, cut the salary and benefits of all 108 members and forge a stronger direct rule with the Republic of Ireland. He also stated that both governments were not willing to continue talks past the deadline and would instead work on developing joint policies in Northern Ireland.

Blair who is under pressure to resign by next year is seeking a more permanent peace settlement before he leaves office.

"This is the last chance for this generation, really, to make this process work," Blair said. "We've come a long way, but we need to get the rest of the way now."

Ahern said that he wanted to see the institutions active as soon as possible. He added, "The reality of this is that if we don't do this by November 24 then we lose a huge opportunity."

The two prime ministers have also published a in-depth time-line stating what negotiators must accomplish to establish a joint power-sharing administration, one of the main goals of the Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998, by the deadline.

The administration would be led by the two main parties, the Democratic Unionist Party led by Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin, led by Gerry Adams.

The parties gave their opinions over the visit by the prime ministers.

The deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Peter Robinson, said their party stressed the need for the assembly to meet. He added, "If negotiations are going to begin in the autumn, then the assembly is going to have to meet between now and then. We can not move on to the next stage unless we move in the sequence of scoping the issues, debating the issues and then negotiating the issues." Robinson is referring to the fact that the Assembly will go on a summer recess soon.

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams hoped the process could move on. "The two governments sought to reassure us of their total commitment to the November 24 deadline and their commitment to making this process work. "We now want them to match that verbal commitment with action in the time ahead," stated Adams.

Yesterday, Sinn Féin announced that the party is thinking of withdrawing from the Northern Ireland Assembly in autumn, after launching an internal review. The review could shift the party's focus from a devolution deal to the next election if the deal is unlikely by the November 24 deadline.

The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Sir Reg Empey, said that anyone who has no intention of meeting the November 24 deadline should "have the guts to say so". Empey added, "We want to see devolution restored if the conditions are right at the time and we will spare no effort to see that is achieved."

David Ford, the leader of the Alliance Party said that his party is sharing the frustration of the people of Northern Ireland. He added, "Alliance is prepared to work its socks off until November to get an assembly restored but we need the governments to play their part as well."

The leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Mark Durkan, said ahead of his meeting with the two "The taoiseach and the prime minister shouldn't have to be here today trying to make sense out of a lot of the nonsense that is coming from some of the parties. I hope the two premiers are clear in their message today that they want to see the parties here get on with it, because that is what the public want to see."

On May 15, the parties took their seats in the first session of the Northern Ireland Assembly since October 2002. The assembly had been suspended since 2002 over allegations of a republican spy ring. Direct rule from London has been in place since then.

A Preparation for Government Committee has been formed consisting of the various major parties, but progress has been slow. Especially since the DUP will not cooperate with Sinn Féin until the Irish Republican Army completely disbands. Last year, the IRA decommissioned their weaponry.

Blair and Ahern plan to return to Northern Ireland in October after the publication of a report on paramilitary activity.

Meanwhile, before meeting with the parties, the two prime ministers ventured to Ballymena, County Antrim to meet with cross-community students. The meeting is in response to murder of Michael McIlveen, a 15-year-old Catholic boy by a loyalist/unionist mob in County Antrim.