05 March 2006

Ahern and Blair forced to delay NI initiative

Irish Times

Sat, Mar 04, 06

Vehement Sinn Féin opposition to the proposal to re-establish the Northern Ireland Assembly in "shadow" form has delayed plans for a major announcement next Wednesday by British prime minister Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern intended to force the pace in the stalled talks., writes Mark Brennock and Frank Millar

The Government has signalled that next Wednesday's meeting at Downing Street between the Taoiseach and the prime minister is now likely to be a stocktaking exercise in relation to Northern talks, rather than the occasion for a significant initiative as had initially been hoped.

The change in mood follows strong Sinn Féin and SDLP opposition to the initiative, which is believed to include the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly in "shadow" form, a move sought by the DUP.

A Government spokeswoman said yesterday that Wednesday's meeting between Mr Blair and Mr Ahern would be dedicated to "reviewing the process" and assessing the contacts which had been made recently with all parties, including Sinn Féin and the SDLP.

A statement is expected afterwards, but it is not now expected to announce any significant new initiative.

Government sources say that the two governments are continuing to work towards achieving early progress, but they have signalled that Wednesday's meeting is now unlikely to see a major new step forward.

Despite last night's announcement in Dublin, Downing Street insisted Mr Blair's strategy remained on course and that the moment of "tough decision" about the future of the Northern Ireland Assembly could not be long delayed.

The prime minister's official spokesman said: "The prime minister has an increasingly clear view about what needs to be done, as I've said before, but we are not yet at the point of decisions being taken."

He characterised the "no announcement/no press conference" nature of next Wednesday's private meeting as a natural opportunity for the prime minister and Taoiseach to take stock of the situation ahead of the usual break in proceedings generated by the annual St Patrick's Day celebrations at home and abroad.

Political sources in Dublin and Belfast earlier this week talked up the prospect of Mr Blair and Mr Ahern announcing plans next Wednesday to take the initiative in relation to restoring the suspended political institutions.

This was expected to include the restoration of the Northern Assembly in "shadow" form.

This Assembly would continue for a limited period, with full restoration of the elected Assembly conditional on agreement to re-establish the power-sharing executive.

The strength of Sinn Féin and SDLP opposition is believed to have led to a view among government officials that more time is needed to decide how to proceed.

Senior British and Irish officials met in London yesterday to consider how to go forward.

It was accepted in Whitehall that last night's announcement would excite talk of fresh crisis in the political process.

However, while the precise timeframe for the proposed British initiative remains to be decided, the preference now appears to be for a period of six months rather than a year, pointing to a decision to reconvene the Assembly by the beginning of May.

The impression from usually well-informed sources was that Mr Blair remained keen to have the proposed "shadow" Assembly make a decision - to restore power-sharing or collapse the institutions - in October or November this year following further reports from the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC).

Mr Blair is resisting Sinn Féin and SDLP demands that he "set a date for restoration" and the immediate triggering of the mechanism to form an executive, in the certain belief that DUP leader the Rev Ian Paisley is under no pressure from the unionist community to deal following the most recent IMC report implicating the IRA in continued criminality and intelligence-gathering.

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