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Prime Minister Tony Blair faced a showdown Wednesday with Ian Paisley over whether Northern Ireland's hard-line Protestant leader will share power with the Catholics of Sinn Fein by a deadline of March 26.
Blair prepared for his first face-to-face meetings with Paisley and Sinn Fein chief Gerry Adams since their parties triumphed in Northern Ireland elections last week.
Democratic Unionist leader Paisley, who represents most of the province's British Protestant majority, and Adams were in London for separate discussions with Blair at his Downing Street office.
Paisley has refused to commit to Blair's deadline, citing Sinn Fein's continued ambiguity on whether it will cooperate fully with the Police Service of Northern Ireland. In recent weeks Sinn Fein leaders have called on Catholics to help police solve certain crimes, but suggested they will not help stop attacks by Irish Republican Army dissidents opposed to the peace process.
Both Paisley and Adams agree on the other key condition for cooperation - more money from Britain, which already heavily subsidizes government services and employment in Northern Ireland.
Paisley is seeking a reported 1 billion pounds (â‚¬1.5 billion, US$2 billion) in extra funds for any incoming power-sharing administration to spend. Both Adams and Paisley say they would use extra money to reverse a new household water tax due to be imposed starting next month across Northern Ireland.
In a House of Commons debate, Paisley said a power-sharing administration could not run smoothly with the current level of British funding.
He said there was no point "putting a beautiful engine on the road, if there is not the money to pay for the fuel to run that engine!"
In reply, Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, said the government "will do our best to provide an incoming executive with the wherewithal it needs to have a successful start."
Britain has already committed to the idea of providing a "peace dividend" of extra money if a Democratic Unionist-Sinn Fein administration takes root. Brown has planned a formal meeting with several Northern Ireland leaders next week to discuss this properly.
However, Blair also insists that if Paisley refuses to sit down at the Cabinet table by March 26, he will order the fledgling Northern Ireland Assembly - the legislature with the power to form an administration - dissolved the very next day.
In that scenario, Britain would offer a greater Northern Ireland role to the Irish government, a move that Protestants also oppose.
The Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein were the twin victors of last week's assembly election. The Democratic Unionists won 36 seats in the 108-member legislature, while Sinn Fein won 28, crushing their moderate rivals.
The result means the Democratic Unionists are entitled to five of the 12 power-sharing positions, including the top post of "first minister" for Paisley, and Sinn Fein would get four. The moderate Protestants of the Ulster Unionist Party would get two posts, while the moderate Catholics of the Social Democratic and Labour Party - the most ardent advocates of power-sharing - just one.
A moderate-led coalition governed Northern Ireland from December 1999 to October 2002, when it collapsed amid a Sinn Fein-IRA spying scandal within government circles. Since then, Protestant voters turned to the hard-line stand of Paisley, who demanded that the IRA disappear and Sinn Fein accept law and order.
Adams has come close to delivering this. The IRA in 2005 disarmed and pledged never to resume trying to remove Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom by force, a campaign that claimed nearly 1,800 lives from 1970 to 1997. Sinn Fein in January voted to abandon its decades-old policy of hostility to the Northern Ireland police.
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