- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 15, 2005

DUBLIN — Britain’s new Northern Ireland secretary insisted at the end of a weeklong tour of the territory yesterday that, despite recent setbacks, the parties must keep working toward reconciliation.

“I’ve spent the last week talking to all the leaders in Northern Ireland,” said Peter Hain, a close ally of Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was handed the troublesome portfolio in a Cabinet shake-up this month.

“And the one thing that everyone agrees on, is that there is no other alternative to moving forward. We can’t allow the situation to slide into reverse. That’s not an option,” he said.

Mr. Hain has a history of championing devolution of power in his home country of Wales, and he believes the revival of a suspended power-sharing Northern Ireland assembly is essential for its future.

“I’m not just responsible for the [Good Friday] peace agreement,” he said. “I’m also responsible for education, health and security. And these are all decisions which should be taken in Northern Ireland by an executive, elected by the people of Northern Ireland.”

The fact that Mr. Blair handed responsibility for Northern Ireland to a close ally suggests he is serious about getting the peace process back on track. But the problems facing the new secretary are formidable and numerous.

Ian Paisley’s hard-line Democratic Unionist Party is now the largest political party in Northern Ireland, after elections earlier this month.

There is no question of the DUP sharing power with Gerry Adams’ Sinn Fein. A DUP member has described Sinn Fein as “the [Irish Republican Army] in lounge suits.”

Mr. Hain agreed that last December’s bank robbery in Belfast and the brutal slaying by suspected IRA members of Robert McCartney had made any power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland a remote possibility, but he pointed out that before these events, the two sides were close to agreement.

However, he was very clear how the British government views recent events. “There is no place for criminal or paramilitary activity in the Irish political process,” he said.

Tomorrow, Queen Elizabeth will address Parliament outlining the government’s plans for the next 18 months, and an ambitious program of legislation is expected in spite of the Labor Party’s loss of seats in this month’s elections.

“Historically, we’ve had a very large majority. This reduced majority means that everyone will have to work harder. I think it’s going to be healthy for Parliament, and healthy for everyone concerned,” he said.

Later in the week, Mr. Hain will meet with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who will caution the new minister about excluding Sinn Fein from the political process.

It’s an argument that Mr. Hain will be happy to discuss, but whether there is any practical way forward is another question. Unionist hard-liners have already said that there will be no chance of a power-sharing executive “for a generation.”

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