Thu, Feb 01, 2007 - Page 6 News List

N Ireland vote scheduled for next month

AP , BELFAST

Northern Ireland voters will elect a new legislature on March 7 that will determine the fate of Protestant-Catholic power-sharing, Britain has announced, following the Sinn Fein party's steps away from Irish Republican Army (IRA) violence and toward the rule of law.

The prime ministers of Britain and Ireland, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, said they hoped a newly elected Northern Ireland Assembly would produce what its predecessor failed to achieve -- a grand coalition that unites Protestant hard-liners with IRA veterans.

And both premiers warned the dominant poles of Northern Ireland politics -- the Protestants of the Democratic Unionists and the Catholics of the IRA-linked Sinn Fein -- this really would be their last chance to cooperate.

Speaking side by side after a London meeting on Tuesday, Blair and Ahern said the new assembly must form a 12-member Cabinet within a week, and be ready to receive control of most Northern Ireland government departments by March 26. Failure would mean the assembly's abolition the next day.

If the Democratic Unionists kept refusing to work with Sinn Fein, Ahern said, "then obviously that's it. An assembly which would have been elected for only 19 days would collapse."

Blair said he was serious this time about giving up on power-sharing, the central goal of the Good Friday peace pact of 1998, if the deadline did not break the deadlock. He and Ahern have allowed previous deadlines in negotiations to come and go without consequences.

"We should be very clear, there is no point in having elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly unless it's for the purpose of forming a power-sharing executive out of it by the 26th of March," Blair said.

Both premiers praised Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams for persuading his grassroots to open normal relations with the Northern Ireland police. They said Sunday's overwhelming vote at a special Sinn Fein conference represented an about-face as monumental as the IRA's decisions to cease fire and surrender arms.

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