Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Elections for Northern Ireland (??)

British Prime Minister Tony Blair was set to call a March election in Northern Ireland on Tuesday after Irish nationalists ended decades of opposition to the province's police force.

An election would send a clear signal Blair believes he is on track to meet his March 26 deadline for restoring a regional assembly where Protestant unionists and the mostly Catholic nationalists would share power in the British-ruled province.

The Belfast-based assembly was central to a 1998 peace deal that largely ended 30 years of conflict in which 3,600 people died. But it has been suspended since 2002 despite repeated efforts by London and Dublin to end a political stalemate."It is expected that the Prime Minister will this evening announce an election for March 7," a British government source told Reuters ahead of a meeting in London between Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern.

British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Hain said a report on paramilitary groups issued by an Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) on Tuesday left no doubt London could soon hand back powers over day-to-day affairs to Belfast."This report removes the final, major impediment to the restoration of stable and lasting devolution in Northern Ireland," Hain said in a statement.The IMC earlier added to mounting praise for nationalist party Sinn Fein, which wants a united Ireland, after its members voted on Sunday to stop opposing a law and order system it has long seen as biased in favour of the majority Protestants."The decision ... was a major step forward, reached because of the commitment and efforts of the Sinn Fein leadership," the IMC said of the Irish Republican Army's political ally.

Mitchell Reiss, U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland, also hailed the "historic" move but pinpointed a key obstacle to power-sharing when he called on unionists, who want to keep ties to Britain, to clearly signal readiness to work with Sinn Fein.The biggest pro-British grouping, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has yet to commit to London and Dublin's deadline for restoring power-sharing, saying it wants to see concrete proof of Sinn Fein's support for law and order.A spokesman for Blair, who wants to see a Northern Ireland settlement before he leaves office later this year, said calls from Sinn Fein leaders encouraging cooperation with the police were a "significant advance" but accepted more may be needed.

"I think (DUP leader) Dr (Ian) Paisley has publicly acknowledged there has been some progress, he has also said he wants to see words translated into action," the spokesman said.



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