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Crunch time for N Irish gov't, say Blair and Ahern

Written by: Staff

ARMAGH, Northern Ireland, Apr 6 (Reuters) The British and Irish governments set a deadline today for restoring Northern Ireland's stalled regional administration in a final push to persuade the province's warring politicians to share power.

Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern unveiled plans to recall the Belfast assembly -- set up under 1998's Good Friday peace agreement to end 30 years of violence -- in May and give politicians six weeks to form a decision-making executive.

The two governments have set an absolute deadline of November 24 for the re-establishment of power sharing between majority Protestants committed to links with Britain and Roman Catholic nationalists who favour a united Ireland.

Failure to agree would result in the severance of assembly members' salaries -- which have cost 85 million pounds since the institution was suspended more than three years ago -- and deferral of the assembly.

''At that point we close the chapter or we close the book,'' Blair told a joint news conference in County Armagh, close to the Irish border with Northern Ireland.

''People in Northern Ireland and the whole of the island of Ireland want this to work,'' he added.

Ahern said the time had come ''to build on all of this and move the process on''.

The Belfast assembly was put on ice in 2002 amid a row over the activities of the Irish Republican Army guerrilla group, which has since pledged to down arms for good after a bloody three-decade campaign to end British rule in the province.

The Democratic Unionist Party, which represents much of the province's Protestant majority, has refused to share power with the IRA's political ally Sinn Fein -- the dominant nationalist party -- until it is fully convinced the IRA is out of business.

Breaking the political stalemate before the end of this year is seen as crucial as the Irish government will be tied up with a general election in the first half of 2007 and Britain could face a period of political transition if Blair steps down.

The latest bid by London and Dublin to push forward the peace process has been overshadowed by this week's murder of Denis Donaldson, a Sinn Fein official revealed as a British spy in December.

The body of Donaldson, a convicted IRA bomber, was discovered today in a remote hideout in rugged northwestern Ireland. He had been blasted with a shotgun.

Ahern said Donaldson's ''callous'' murder was a brutal reminder of Northern Ireland's violent history and that Thursday's strategy was ''about putting that past behind us once and for all''.

Donaldson's death and speculation about the involvement of Irish republicans has sparked renewed finger-pointing by the province's rival politicians.


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