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Leaders unveil plan to revive Ireland power-sharing

Prime ministers seek concessions

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- The British and Irish governments unveiled a complex plan yesterday for resurrecting a Catholic-Protestant administration for Northern Ireland -- a deal that, to succeed, will require major concessions by both sides.

The prime ministers of Britain and Ireland, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, stood side by side to announce that they had agreed on a blueprint to revive power-sharing, the central dream of the Good Friday peace accord of 1998. Northern Ireland's rival leaders have not yet taken a position on the new plan.

Blair and Ahern said Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army-linked party that represents the province's Irish Catholic minority, must act first by recognizing the Northern Ireland police, a force the IRA spent decades trying to destroy.

The prime ministers specified no deadline for this to happen. But they said both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists, the major British Protestant party, must accept the governments' blueprint by Nov. 10. Then it would be the Democratic Unionists' turn to vote, for the first time in their history, in support of Sinn Fein.

Both sides of the Northern Ireland Assembly would be required to elect, in a joint vote Nov. 24, the top two politicians of the embryonic administration. It would be a symbolic act, because neither figure -- most likely Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness -- would receive any government powers from Britain.

Instead, Blair and Ahern said Paisley's Protestant followers would get more than three months to observe whether Sinn Fein supporters really were accepting the police, who now face hostility and no cooperation in Sinn Fein power bases.

The Northern Ireland Assembly would not be required to elect the administration's remaining 10 posts until March 14, while responsibility to run Northern Ireland government departments would be transferred from Britain to local hands on March 26.

``You can't have a democratic society unless the police are given full support," Blair said.

The British leader defended the governments' decision to abandon their longtime demand for a full revival of power-sharing by Nov. 24 on the grounds that Democratic Unionist supporters needed ``a time gap" to monitor Sinn Fein behavior toward the police, ``to see plainly that what is stated in theory is being observed in practice."

In a key reassurance to Protestant opinion, the governments said Britain would not transfer control of Northern Ireland's police and justice system to the local administration until mid-2008, and only then if the Protestant side of the Assembly supported this. Sinn Fein had demanded an immediate transfer of power -- potentially to a Sinn Fein minister.

Paisley, an 80-year-old evangelist who has spent decades opposing compromise with Catholics, offered a cautious welcome for the governments' plans.

``We will meet the requirements. But the IRA-Sinn Fein has got to meet those requirements," he said. ``And when they do, we will really be on the way to peace in Northern Ireland." He said Sinn Fein leaders ``must, both by word and deed, demonstrate their unequivocal support for the laws of the land and those whose job it is to enforce them."

Adams offered a more guarded reaction to the governments' blueprint, which he said ``requires thoughtful consideration and consultation." He declined to make any comment on the key question of accepting the police.

But he described power-sharing as ``an enormous prize. Common sense, political realism, and the interests of all sections of our people demand that we achieve this."

A key part of the governments' formula remained undefined -- whether their plans would be reinforced, in early March, by either a public referendum or a new Assembly election. Blair and Ahern said one or the other would happen, depending on what the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein decided.

Sinn Fein has been urged for years to accept the legitimacy of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, a mostly Protestant police force that is midway through a 10-year reform program drafted under terms of the Good Friday pact.

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