There is mounting optimism that the peace process can make a historic breakthrough this month after the Dublin and London governments appeared willing to hold to their stated March 26th deadline for the return of local power-sharing in the North of Ireland.
Veteran unionist ‘firebrand’ Ian Paisley is reported to be ready to capitalise on his party’s success following the DUP’s gain of six seats in the Assembly election last week. This should mean the party will take five of the 12 Ministerial positions on the Six County Executive, including Paisley himself as First Minister.
Despite a challenge from republican hardliners, Sinn Fein also strengthened its position, winning four extra seats. It will take four Ministries, including former IRA leader Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister, if powers are again devolved from London to Belfast.
The possibility of a breakthrough this month loomed larger as British officials appeared ready to meet DUP demands for a sizable financial package, without conceding to a further delay in the timetable laid out in the St Andrews agreement last October.
Extra money will be made available to the Six Counties if that is what is needed to get the political parties to agree to form a power-sharing executive, British Direct Ruler Peter Hain said.
Mr Hain met at Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast with the 26-County Foreign Minister, Dermot Ahern, to discuss the peace process.
Mr Hain said there was now a crucial countdown period to the March 26 deadline when an executive had to be established, or pull the plug on the Belfast Assembly.
“The St Andrews legislation leaves no discretion to me to do anything other than restore or dissolve the Assembly,” Mr Hain said.
And he said there was ‘not the slightest possibility’ of the London parliament revisiting the legislation, he said as he repeated his often repeated mantra that it was ‘now or never’.
The two governents have threatened to move to partnership arrangements for the implementation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement if the DUP refuses to share power. Unionists fear such a policy would lead to the two governments sharing authority in the North and undermine the union with Britain.
Mr Ahern said, given that it was Cheltenham race week, “we are coming to the final hurdle”.
“It’s the 26th - either that or bust,” he added.
However, previous ‘deadlines’ have proven meaningless as the two governments have always allowed more time for unionists to extract further concessions from Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA.
In January, Sinn Fein controversially endorsed the British PSNI police force in the North, creating turmoil within republicanism. But at the weekend, Mr Paisley, without going into further detail, made further demands, calling on Sinn Fein to ‘repent’ and ‘deliver’ as ‘democrats’.
Many commentators have suggested that unionists are incapable of ever sharing power on equal terms with nationalists.
On Thursday of next week, four days before the deadline, Mr Hain will accompany the parties to a meeting with Chancellor Gordon Brown to try and put togather a financial package which he hopes will be attractive enough to make them want to go into government together.
Speaking at Hillsborough Castle Mr Hain held out the prospect that money could be provided to prevent the introduction of water charges next month.
He said if he was still in control the charges - which became a major issue during the election campaign - would be implemented.
But he said if the parties came to the Government with alternative proposals, “we would want to consider that very seriously”.
“I want to encourage the successful start to devolution and an incoming executive, and clearly the electorate made clear their feelings on water charges to the parties - it was the biggest issue on the doorstep and the biggest issue at the polling stations.”
A spokesman for the Bush Administration in the US congratulated the British government on conducting ‘peaceful and successful’ elections in the North.
The statement said that the time for deadlock was over.
“It is time for local political leaders to stand up the Stormont Assembly and address the interests of all the people of the Province (sic),” the statement said.
US Congressman Richard Neal, who chairs the Friends of Ireland in the US House of Representatives, saidthat the emergence of “what appears to be a two-party system” in the North places a new responsibility on Sinn Fein and the DUP.
“With the jubilation that comes from emerging victorious, there’s also a heavier burden to govern. The other thing is I think the two-party system kind of builds in a shock absorber to the extent that there’s no lurching.”
Former US senator George Mitchell, who chaired the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, said he believed a powersharing deal following the elections is inevitable.
However, he confessed he did not think it would take this long to come to the point where he believed a deal would be possible. He said all parties had “come a long way” and that Sinn Fein’s decision to join policing boards was a “significant step”.
RESULT ‘A BLIP’
26-County Tanaiste and Progressive Democrats leader Michael McDowell said he regarded Sinn Fein’s election gains as an “unfortunate blip”.
He also said it was “unhelpful” that some senior Sinn Fein people were “fudging” on whether they would inform the PSNI about the activities of dissident republicans.
Mr McDowell was referring to a recent remark by Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew -- heavily criticised by unionists -- in which she declined to call on the public to inform on breakaway groups such as the Real IRA or Continuity IRA.
“You can’t be half in or half out of the rule of law; you either uphold it or don’t uphold it,” he said.