Hain tells Ulster's leaders: 'It's make your mind up time'

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The Independent Online

Northern Ireland's politicians have been warned that their devolved government will be locked in the deep freeze for years unless they restore it by November.

Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, said in an interview with The Independent: "We have had years and years of frustrating negotiations. This is make your mind up time. What is radically different this time is that we will not allow vetoes and events to stall the process, and then start again after a year or so."

He appealed to Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) not to use the murder of the former British spy Denis Donaldson as "an excuse" to block the revival of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.

At talks in Northern Ireland today, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, will announce that the Assembly will meet again on 15 May. Under their joint blueprint, it would have six weeks to elect a first minister and deputy first minister and form a power-sharing executive. Although there is little prospect of that happening by June, London and Dublin hope a real effort will be made by the province's politicians in September, ahead of the deadline of 24 November.

If there is no agreement, Mr Hain will cancel the elections to the Assembly scheduled for May 2007. He warned that direct rule from London could then continue for years.

Mr Hain said: "This is a crunch year for the political process in Northern Ireland that has developed since the Good Friday Agreement eight years ago next week. In that time, the Assembly has sat for less than two years."

He added: "If local politicians want to be left behind, trapped in spats with each other and stuck in the past, and refuse to co-operate by the deadline, then the people and the place will move on without them."

Mr Hain said the Assembly had cost £80m since its suspension. "I notice on a daily basis that the people of Northern Ireland are really fed up to the back teeth with politicians who are paid but do not do their jobs.

"If the politicians refuse to co-operate, and are determined to be left behind, there will be no plans to revive the Assembly. There is no alternative blueprint. It is the only show in town," Mr Hain said. But he conceded: "It may not happen immediately. It should not be seen as a failure if we don't get the Assembly up and running in May."

Mr Hain described the killing of Mr Donaldson as "a hideous throwback to the past of horror that Northern Ireland has left behind".

He added: "We won't allow it to deflect us from taking the political process forward. Democracy has got to triumph over bullets and barbarism. We will ensure that there will not be any excuse for any politician to use these events as a reason not to co-operate."

Referring to today's talks, he said: "I have no doubt that that this was ruthlessly deliberate. It is too much of a coincidence."

Key moments in peace process

* 10 April 1998: Good Friday Agreement drawn up proposing devolution of power to a Northern Ireland Assembly.

* 15 August 1998: "Real IRA" explodes a bomb in Omagh killing 28.

* 1 December 1999: Power is passed from Westminster to Belfast.

* 26 June 2000: First act of decommissioning by the IRA. Arms inspectors visit a secret weapons dump and confirm they cannot be used without their knowledge.

* 14 October 2002: John Reid suspends devolution and announces the return of rule by London amid a claim of Stormont spy ring.

* 28 July 2005: The IRA ends its armed campaign, ordering units to dump arms and "assist the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means".