Sinn Féin’s move to support the police in the North leaves unionists with no excuse to balk at power-sharing, NI Secretary Peter Hain insisted today.
As he prepared to meet Irish premier Bertie Ahern ahead of today’s Six Nations Rugby Clash between Wales and Ireland in Cardiff, Mr Hain said the Rev Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists were under no illusions about the March 26 deadline for devolution at Stormont.
“We are determined to ensure that everybody understands with crystal clarity that March 26 is the day for devolution, or dissolution will follow,” he said.
“There have been a few off-stage noises recently where some politicians appear to be oblivious to that fact or are in denial.
“What has happened in the last week with Sinn-Féin’s decision to get involved in policing at its special ard fheis (party conference) last week, and the remarkable series of statements by Gerry Adams afterwards, urging people in republican communities to co-operate with the police and encouraging them to join means Sinn Féin are well on their way to delivering what their leadership promised to do.
“That was to comply with policing and the rule of law. That leaves no excuses for unionists to balk at power-sharing during the election or after that.”
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Mr Ahern agreed last Monday that the Northern Ireland Assembly Election should go ahead on March 7 as planned.
However, they warned the plug would be pulled on the election if it became apparent there would be no power-sharing government on March 26.
A senior Democratic Unionist Gregory Campbell, whose party has insisted Sinn Fein must prove its commitment to policing by actions on the ground, cast doubt on whether the March 26 deadline was achievable.
Insisting Sinn Féin would have to undergo a series of tests over policing policy, the East Londonderry MP said: “It would be an insult to people’s intelligence to think we could be in government with Sinn Féin by March 26.”
DUP leaders have been anxious to acknowledge the ideological shift in Sinn Féin on policing but they have also stressed that they will judge republican’s new-found support for Sir Hugh Orde’s Police Service of Northern Ireland on how republican communities respond.
Mr Hain would not respond specifically to Mr Campbell’s comments.
“The leadership of the DUP is in no doubt that March 26 is D-Day. It’s devolution or dissolution – that is the choice.
“I believe Mr Paisley and his leadership want to establish devout government.
“But if any of the off-stage noises become a wider reality, there is no point in having an election.
“There will also be no point in people getting to the other side of an election saying ’we want a few more months’.
“We have been through this weary process of people saying ’let’s get to October’ and then when we get to October, we need more time.
“The time for closure on these issues is now.”
If Northern Ireland’s politicians fail to form a power-sharing government by March 26, Mr Blair and Mr Ahern have warned they will implement a Plan B.
Although the full details have not emerged, it is believed the new joint partnership arrangement between London and Dublin would see Northern Ireland still under direct rule from Westminster, but with increased co-operation between Northern Ireland Office and Irish Government ministers.
Mr Hain insisted power-sharing remained the favoured option of both governments.
“The voters of Northern Ireland are fed up to the back teeth with this circus in Stormont going round and round in circles, especially now when all the conditions for the resumption of devolution are in place,” he said.
“There is a willingness within Sinn Féin to comply with the rule of law and policing, the IRA has ended its war and decommissioned its weapons.
“Republicans have done and are doing everything asked of them.
“Everybody understands that if there is dissolution of the Assembly, we have to get on with things.
“That means co-operation with the Irish Republic’s government, and also the continuation of direct rule. Everybody understands that, but I know that the Irish Government, like ourselves, would prefer devout government in Northern Ireland, with powers in locally-elected ministers’ hands.”