ian paisley .
(photo credit: AP)
Britain said Sunday it intends to try to hand power immediately to a new Catholic-Protestant administration for Northern Ireland but is open to the Protestant side's demand for an extension to May.
Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain said Saturday's decision by the major Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists, to reject his Monday deadline for a fully functioning administration contained good news.
The Democratic Unionists had committed to sitting down with Sinn Fein, the major Catholic-backed party, within six weeks, he said, and Britain would do what it could to make sure this happened.
"This is the first time the DUP has said they will share power with Sinn Fein. People said this would never happen and it is a breakthrough," he said.
The Democratic Unionists for years have refused to cooperate with Sinn Fein, citing its links to Irish Republican Army violence and crime. But mammoth peace moves, the IRA disarmed and renounced violence in 2005, and Sinn Fein in January pledged to cooperate with the Northern Ireland police, have undercut Democratic Unionists' hatred of Sinn Fein.
Hain said he would sign an order Sunday clearing the way for the Northern Ireland Assembly, the 108-member legislature that forms the bedrock for power-sharing, to convene Monday so that it could elect all 12 members of the envisioned administration.
Because they are the two largest parties, both the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein can block the nominations. While Sinn Fein has long called for power-sharing, the Democratic Unionists say they won't enter office until they are certain that Sinn Fein fully supports law and order in this British territory.
Hain said he still hoped that the Democratic Unionists might surprise everybody and accept nominations, even though the party ruled this out in its policy motion Saturday.
That motion, made public Sunday, said a joint Catholic-Protestant administration "can make a real and meaningful improvement in the lives of all of the people of Northern Ireland." The Democratic Unionists pledged to "support and participate fully in a Northern Ireland executive if powers were devolved to it on an agreed date in May."
Until now, Britain has insisted that Monday was an "unbreakable" date: The Democratic Unionists had to vote in the assembly to appoint a fully functioning administration or Hain would dissolve the assembly and introduce a range of unpopular policies, including a new household water tax.
Hain refused to spell out what Britain would do if the Democratic Unionists, as expected, refuse to accept nominations Monday. But he suggested that if he ordered the assembly to be shut down, the stoppage could be short-lived.
"We can either do this our way," Hain said, referring to his Monday deadline, "or they can do it their way."
The Democratic Unionist motion suggested that party leader Ian Paisley could agree Monday to enter a joint committee with Sinn Fein and other parties to begin negotiating on a joint platform for government, but only if all the other parties accepted the delay to May.
This meeting could involve the first-ever face-to-face discussions between Paisley and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. Until now, Democratic Unionists have refused to negotiate directly with Sinn Fein officials, instead using the British government and other third parties.
On Saturday, Adams appealed to Britain not to give more time to Paisley.
"There will be deep disappointment and dismay at the failure of leadership by the DUP and their efforts to frustrate the will of the people," Adams said.