The North may not get the same level of British government focus when the next Prime Minister takes over, secretary of state Peter Hain warned today.
With unionists and republicans under pressure to strike a power-sharing deal by the November 24 deadline, Mr Hain claimed no successor could match Tony Blair’s level of expertise.
He also predicted that a lasting settlement could banish terrorism from Ireland forever.
As the Ulster Unionists’ controversial alliance at the Stormont Assembly with a party linked to loyalist paramilitaries was declared a breach of the rules, all sides in Belfast were told to restore devolution – or face political irrelevance.
Mr Hain issued his challenge after holding talks with Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern in Dundalk, Co Louth.
If a political settlement is rejected by November 24 it will represent a major lost opportunity, Mr Hain stressed.
With Mr Blair confirming he will quit within the next 12 months, the Ulster Secretary claimed there may not be another Prime Minister as committed and informed on the issues in Northern Ireland.
Mr Hain said: “He and the Taoiseach are twin architects of the whole dramatic change in Northern Ireland for the past 10 years. They are the best people to take it forward.
“There is nobody else – no successor who can do the type of job that the Taoiseach has done and the Prime Minister has done.
“They know the people, they know the issues inside out. They have the strategic brilliance to be able to conclude all of these. It’s absolutely crucial that all the parties take advantage of their detailed knowledge and attention.
“I’m not sure you will get a British Prime Minister who will give this kind of forensic, detailed attention to solving these problems because the world will move on after November 24.”
Mr Hain became the first northern Ireland secretary to make an official visit to Dundalk, a border town used by on-the-run IRA men as violence raged in the North.
As the rest of the world marked the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terror strikes, he also focused on the rogue republicans attempting to wreck the political process through a new bombing campaign.
“If we can get in place an agreement for power-sharing and self-government in Northern Ireland by November 24, it would send out an absolutely crystal-clear message to dissident terrorists on this important day that they have no place in the future of Northern Ireland or elsewhere on the island of Ireland,” Mr Hain said.
“It is the best guarantee against them if we get democracy up and running by November 24.
“It’s a very important date. It has taken generations to get here and if we miss this opportunity, then it will condemn future generations of young people to an existence which is far from ideal.
“Life will move on from the elected politicians of Northern Ireland. The MLAs will forfeit their role to be politically significant in Northern Ireland and to represent their communities.”
As he issued his challenge, the merger in the Assembly’s current shadow form between the Ulster Unionists (UUP) and the Progressive Unionists (PUP) – a party aligned to the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), was declared a breach of the rules.
Eileen Bell, Speaker at the Assembly, revealed after legal discussions that the UUP’s grouping did not have proper party characteristics.
Her ruling came as Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey endured growing internal dissent over his decision to bolster the ranks by bringing in PUP chief David Ervine.
Mr Ervine was astonished that Mrs Bell was able to take such a decision.
He said: “Here’s a Speaker who can’t call a meeting of the Northern Ireland Assembly and yet a Speaker who can make this type of judgment.
“I find it incredible.”
Sinn Fein claimed the decision was not surprising, given that it contravened existing regulations.
However, Naomi Long, deputy leader of the cross-community Alliance Party, claimed the UUP had been given a get-out clause.
She said: “Some leading members of the Ulster Unionists broke rank and expressed their disgust at this grubby link but clearly, the Ulster Unionists did not have the strength of character or morals to break this deal.
“Their blushes have only been spared by the decision of the Speaker to stop their disgusting deal.”
Raymond McCord, an outspoken critic of Mr Ervine and the father of a UVF murder victim, was delighted by the ruling.
“Reg Empey was prepared to forsake principles, bringing in people from a party with a military wing.
“It’s great news for me and a lot of other victims,” he said.