LONDON: British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Northern Ireland’s Ian Paisley discussed the hard-line Protestant leader’s price for sharing power with the Catholics of Sinn Fein by a March 26 deadline.
Blair held his first face-to-face meetings Wednesday with Democratic Unionist leader Paisley and Sinn Fein chief Gerry Adams since their parties triumphed last week in Northern Ireland Assembly elections — and gave them both veto power over reviving a Catholic-Protestant administration.
Paisley, who represents most of the province’s British Protestant majority, and Adams met separately in a House of Commons conference room with Blair as well as his treasury chief and likely successor, Gordon Brown.
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.
Democratic Unionist deputy leader Peter Robinson, who also took part in the talks, stressed afterward that his party would not move unless Sinn Fein demonstrated full support for law and order.
“Mr. Adams knows the requirements. He knows what has to be done, and he knows he is not yet doing them,” Robinson said in an interview.
But Adams said the British government accepted that Sinn Fein had done enough to merit a share of power. Adams said he, Blair and Brown all sensed a breakthrough with Paisley was imminent.
“I do think that this British government ... they can smell it, that this could be the real breakthrough after all the conflict, after all the false dawns,” Adams said.
Both the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein do agree on the other key condition for cooperation —getting more money from Britain, which already heavily subsidizes government services and employment in Northern Ireland.
Paisley is seeking a reported GBP 1 billion pounds 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.
“We certainly want to see the British government pick up the tab for the failure to invest in water services and the infrastructure. That’s what I was negotiating for,” said Adams, who remains committed to ousting the British government from Northern Ireland.
Paisley did not speak to reporters after his meetings.
Earlier, 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!”
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.
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.
“Everybody realizes that we are serious about the 26th, and therefore a decision has to be made,” said Blair’s official spokesman, who spoke on customary condition he not be identified by name.
The Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein were the victors of last week’s assembly election. The Democratic Unionists won 36 seats in the 108-member legislature, while Sinn Fein won 28.
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.
The previous, moderate-led coalition for Northern Ireland collapsed in October 2002 amid a Sinn Fein-IRA spying scandal. Protestant voters turned to 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.