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Northern Ireland negotiations resume
Updated: 2006-02-07 08:54

Negotiations to revive a Catholic-Protestant administration for Northern Ireland resumed Monday after a 14-month hiatus caused by the IRA's alleged record-breaking robbery of a Belfast bank.

In the interim, the Irish Republican Army handed over its weapons stockpiles to disarmament officials and pledged never to resume "armed struggle," major achievements on the road to lasting peace in this long-contested British territory.

The governments of Britain and Ireland, which jointly oversaw Monday's discussions with rival local leaders at Hillsborough Castle near Belfast, hope that such reconciliatory actions by the IRA will eventually permit Protestants to work again with Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party that represents most of Northern Ireland's Roman Catholic minority.

After Monday's meeting, officials in both governments said they would reconvene talks Feb. 20 and set an April target for a deal to revive power-sharing, the central aim of Northern Ireland's Good Friday pact of 1998.

But Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley, the key Protestant politician in position to share power with Catholics, said the IRA remains criminal and terrorist — and Sinn Fein a political pariah.

Departing the castle after talks with Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain and Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern, Paisley said his party would not cooperate with Sinn Fein until the IRA disappeared. For now, the Democratic Unionist negotiators will continue refusing to negotiate directly with Sinn Fein officials.

Paisley cited the conclusions of an expert international commission, published last week, that the IRA had halted most activities but still was running criminal rackets and spying on rival politicians, intelligence agencies and government departments.

Such activity, Paisley said, meant Britain and Ireland should have barred Sinn Fein from Monday's talks.

"I don't think the Sinn Feiners should be at talks to set up a government of Northern Ireland when they are still at their criminal activity," Paisley said.

A Sinn Fein delegation arrived at the castle after Paisley and did not immediately comment. But over the weekend, Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness said they expected Britain and Ireland to push Paisley toward a new deal — or to impose one on him.

"Are the governments in charge or is Ian Paisley in charge?" Adams said.

Paisley, 79, has spent decades marshaling Protestant opinion against compromise. In 2003, voters made his Democratic Unionists the biggest party in Northern Ireland's legislature, giving him veto power over the formation of any new administration.

A four-party coalition that was led by moderates, not the hard-line Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, governed Northern Ireland in fits and starts from December 1999 to October 2002. But the four-party coalition, which allotted fewer positions to the hard-liners, proved chronically unstable because of arguments over the IRA.

The Democratic Unionists came close to cutting a deal with Sinn Fein in December 2004, but it failed when the IRA refused to permit any public record of its disarmament. Within days, trust was shattered when a hostage-taking gang stole $50 million — a British record — from the Northern Bank, a raid authorities blamed on the IRA.

Northern Ireland political analysts appear evenly divided on whether a new coalition with Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein on top could work at all. Without a deal, Britain will continue to govern its territory in quasi-colonial style with Hain and other lawmakers appointed from London, a system instituted in 1972 when bloodshed over Northern Ireland peaked.

After the talks, Hain warned that Britain expected a deal within months — otherwise the province's long-mothballed legislature could be abolished and a planned 2007 election canceled. He noted that the legislature's 108 members were still receiving salaries and expenses worth an average of $150,000 annually.

"It's costing many millions of pounds to stay idle and people won't stand for that," he said.

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