Negotiations on Northern Ireland's future resumed yesterday with prime ministers and rival parties focused on Sinn Fein's hostility to the police, a potential deal-breaker in the struggle to revive a Catholic-Protestant administration.
Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army-linked party that represents most of the province's Irish Catholic minority, said it wasn't going to accept the authority of the Police Service of Northern Ireland until after a power-sharing administration was up and running.
But the Democratic Unionists, who represent the British Protestant majority, insisted they wouldn't work with Sinn Fein leaders unless they convincingly embraced law and order first.
This set up a chicken-and-egg dilemma for the prime ministers of Britain and Ireland, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, who are overseeing the multiparty talks at a luxury golf resort outside this seaside university town.
The likely ground for compromise would require Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists to make simultaneous commitments on policing and power-sharing.
"We're here to look at the two key issues: a commitment by Sinn Fein to full policing, and equally on the other side a commitment by the DUP [Democratic Unionist Party] to share power with nationalists. We're trying to square that circle," Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern said.
The summit began on Wednesday and is scheduled to end today. Both prime ministers insist they must resolve the arguments over policing now and revive power-sharing by Nov. 24. Failure to meet that deadline, they say, will result in the abolition of the Northern Ireland Assembly, whose 108 members wield the power to elect, or block, the administration.
Power-sharing was the central goal of Northern Ireland's Good Friday accord of 1998, but a coalition led by moderate Protestants and Catholics collapsed in 2002 amid chronic arguments over the IRA. Voters in 2003 switched their support to the polar extremes of Northern Irish politics, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein -- a much tougher combination for power-sharing.
Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness, a veteran IRA commander, emphasized that he would not call on Catholics to support and join the police unless a power-sharing administration was revived first -- and, crucially, this time given oversight of the police.
Northern Ireland's previous power-sharing administration ran a dozen government departments, but Britain retained control of the justice system, including all security forces.
Britain has already tabled legislation that would permit oversight of the justice system to be transferred to Northern Ireland hands.
But McGuinness said the transfer of power -- potentially to a Sinn Fein minister -- must happen before Sinn Fein changes its policy of shunning cooperation with the predominantly Protestant police force.
"I am not going to ask republicans in Crossmaglen, South Derry and East Tyrone to join such a force," McGuinness said, listing rural, predominantly Catholic parts of Northern Ireland where IRA support traditionally runs high.
"It would be a waste of time, anyway, because they wouldn't do it," he said.
He said switching oversight of the police away from Britain would allow Sinn Fein to "make a very convincing case that this is a policing service that is rooted on the island of Ireland."