British, Irish Discuss Northern Ireland Power-Sharing Plan

Northern Ireland politicians should strike a power-sharing deal while the British and Irish prime ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, are still in office, the province's secretary of state warned Monday

Peter Hain said the two premiers had devoted exceptional attention to promoting the Irish Republican Army cease-fire of 1997 and the Good Friday peace accord of 1998 and to the years since struggling to forge a stable Catholic-Protestant administration in Northern Ireland.

Blair confirmed last week he plans to step down next year, while Ahern faces re-election next year and has said he probably would not remain Irish prime minister if his ruling Fianna Fail emerged victorious again.

FOX News CountryWatch: Ireland | United Kingdom

Hain — a vocal supporter of Blair's expected successor, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown — said he doubted whether the next British premier would devote much time getting to understand the complexities of Northern Ireland. Brown, a Scot, has visited Northern Ireland just twice since becoming Britain's treasury chief in 1997.

"I don't think you will ever get a British prime minister again who will give this kind of forensic, detailed attention to solving these problems," Hain said following a meeting with Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern in Dundalk, an Irish border town midway between Dublin and Belfast. "The world will move on without them (Northern Ireland politicians) if they don't do the deal."

Hain spoke as the 108 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly reconvened in Belfast following a 2 1/2-month summer break. Hain and Dermot Ahern emphasized that the legislature — which wields the power to elect or block a power-sharing administration — would be closed if no power-sharing deal was achieved by a Nov. 24 deadline.

Both governments have spent the past three years pressing the Democratic Unionists, the major Protestant-backed party, to form a Cabinet alongside Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army-linked party that represents most Catholics. But Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley says his party will shun Sinn Fein until the IRA disbands and Sinn Fein drops its decades-old boycott of the Northern Ireland police force.

Hain, who in the absence of power-sharing is primarily responsible for governing Northern Ireland, said he accepted a recent experts' report that found the IRA in full compliance with its July 2005 pledge to disarm and renounce violence. Hain said that report "showed that mainstream (Irish) republicans have ended the war — it is over."

Blair and Ahern, who both rose to power in 1997, have forged a close working relationship and have jointly overseen several around-the-clock rounds of Northern Ireland negotiations. The two premiers plan to do it again next month in Scotland in what is being billed as their last diplomatic push on power-sharing.

Hain called the two premiers "the twin architects of the whole dramatic change in Northern Ireland, and the whole of Ireland, over the last 10 years." He said there was nobody else who could do the job so well. "They know all the people, they know all the players inside out, and they have the strategic brilliance."

The Good Friday accord proposed power-sharing as the best way to heal communal divisions between rival Irish Catholic and British Protestant communities. But a Catholic-Protestant administration established under the terms of that landmark pact collapsed in October 2002 amid chronic arguments between Protestants and Sinn Fein.

In Belfast — a city still divided today by more than a dozen walls of concrete, brick and corrugated iron dubbed "peace lines" — tensions flared overnight Monday. Suspected Catholic arsonists attacked an unoccupied Protestant community hall near one peace line in north Belfast, while rival gangs traded salvos of rocks, bricks and bottles near another peace line in east Belfast. The latter clash damaged a memorial garden to six Protestants killed by IRA gunmen in 1970.

FOX News CountryWatch: Ireland | United Kingdom