DUBLIN, Oct 23 (Reuters) Protestant bishops met publicly with Sinn Fein leaders for the first time today and called on Northern Ireland's feuding politicians to tackle the two main obstacles to restoring a power-sharing government.
The meeting between the bishops and members of the Irish Republican Army's predominantly Catholic political ally followed talks this month between hard-line Protestant politician Ian Paisley and Ireland's top Catholic bishop.
''This was a positive meeting,'' Anglican Archbishop of Armagh, Robin Eames, said in a statement.
''The Bishops stated their belief that political and social progress can only be achieved by full and equal participation in the structures of democracy with support for policing.'' London and Dublin are making a final push to restore a mothballed local assembly in Northern Ireland by next year but Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which wants to maintain the province's links with Britain, refuses to negotiate with nationalist Sinn Fein, let alone share power.
Sinn Fein, which wants a united Ireland and has a long-held distrust of Northern Ireland's predominantly Protestant security forces, has yet to make the formal commitment to back the police that Paisley is demanding.
''The bishops strongly encourage the Sinn Fein Party in its plans to consult on this issue with those providing its political mandate,'' Eames said.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams had said the talks would be part of a strategy of ''engagement with the Protestant churches''.
The meeting was the latest in a series of symbolic gestures on both sides of Northern Ireland's sectarian divide, including behind-the-scenes collaboration between Sinn Fein and the police and between ''Orange Order'' Protestants and the Catholic church.
Britain and Ireland plan to end direct rule from London by restoring a regional assembly that folded in 2002. It was set up under the 1998 Good Friday peace deal that helped end a 30-year conflict in which 3,600 people died.
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