Irish premier predicts no Belfast power-sharing before 2010

Efforts to forge a stable Catholic-Protestant administration for Northern Ireland will be wrecked for the rest of this decade if politicians don't strike a deal by a Nov. 24 deadline, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern forecast Wednesday.

Ahern offered his stark assessment on the eve of his joint mission to Belfast with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, where the leaders plan to tell rival Protestant and Catholic leaders they must clear away the remaining obstacles to revived power-sharing or they will lose Anglo-Irish support for the effort.

Close cooperation between Blair and Ahern underpinned Northern Ireland's Good Friday accord of 1998, which proposed power-sharing as the best way to promote reconciliation between the province's British Protestant majority and Irish Catholic minority. But while paramilitary cease-fires have largely held for the past decade, such political cooperation has proved a pipe dream.

Northern Ireland's last, crisis-prone coalition collapsed in 2002 over an Irish Republican Army spying scandal. In April, Blair and Ahern announced that politicians would have until Nov. 24 to elect a new administration led by Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, which represents most Protestants, and Gerry Adams' Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party that represents most Catholics.

Paisley insists his party won't vote for Sinn Fein until the IRA disbands and Sinn Fein drops its decades-old opposition to Northern Ireland's police force.

Ahern said he and Blair were unwilling to extend the Nov. 24 deadline. If the deadlock can't be broken by then, he said, this would mean no power-sharing "before the end of the decade."

"If we don't get it by Nov. 24, it is a non-runner in my view," Ahern said, adding, "If we're not going to get these institutions up in the short term, we're not going to get them up in the medium term or long term either. We've had too many extensions and delays. That's the collective view of practically everybody, certainly the view of the British government and Irish government. That's why we put the Nov. 24 deadline in place."

Ahern discounted speculation that the deadline was influenced by the impending resignation of Blair as Labour Party leader after nine years in power. Blair has said he will not remain until the next British election in 2009, while Ahern, also in power since 1997, faces an uncertain re-election in 2007, reports AP.

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