Blair cuts short vacation for urgent Ireland talks

Returned to Downing Street office a day early to resume a diplomatic push on Northern Ireland; will talk with Sinn Fein, Irish Unionist leaders.

blair closing eyes 298.8 (photo credit: AP)
blair closing eyes 298.8
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Tony Blair cut short his Christmas vacation Thursday to resume a diplomatic push on Northern Ireland, where hopes of striking a power-sharing deal are fading. Blair returned to his Downing Street office a day early, following a 10-day break in Florida, to intensify his push for a deal between the two biggest parties in Northern Ireland: the British Protestants of the Democratic Unionists and the Catholics of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army-linked party. A Downing Street spokesman said Blair had returned to London specifically to tackle the problem and would probably talk by telephone Thursday with both Sinn Fein and Democratic Unionist leaders. "He has been talking to leaders in Northern Ireland whilst on holiday and will be working today at Downing Street on those issues," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, in line with policy. At stake is the revival of a Catholic-Protestant administration, the central goal of the 1998 peace accord for the British territory. A previous coalition collapsed in 2002 amid chronic tensions between Protestants and Sinn Fein. The current negotiations hinge on whether Sinn Fein will end its decades-old hostility to law and order in Northern Ireland and open normal relations with the province's police force. The Democratic Unionists say they won't cooperate unless Sinn Fein formally recognizes the police force and encourages its supporters to tell police about criminal activity in traditional IRA power bases. Sinn Fein leaders last week voted to organize a special party conference on the matter - but only if the Democratic Unionist Party issued a sufficiently positive response to the move. On Wednesday night, Sinn Fein issued a statement that suggested the plan for a party conference had been put on hold. "To date there has been no such positive response from the DUP," Sinn Fein said. Blair hopes to dissolve the current Northern Ireland Assembly, the 108-member body with the power to form or block a power-sharing administration, on January 30 - but only if Sinn Fein has completed its policy shift on policing by then. Blair's plan calls for a new Assembly election March 7. The newly elected Assembly would elect a 12-member administration March 14 that would receive control of 13 government departments in Northern Ireland on March 26.