BELFAST, Northern Ireland - Northern Ireland will elect a legislature March 7 that will determine the fate of power-sharing, Britain announced yesterday in swift reply to an IRA-linked political party's decision to support the police.
The prime ministers of Britain and Ireland, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, said they hoped a new Assembly would produce what its predecessor failed to achieve - a coalition that unites Protestant hard-liners with Irish Republican Army veterans.
Both prime ministers warned the two biggest parties in the British territory - the Protestants of the Democratic Unionists and the Catholics of the IRA-allied Sinn Fein - this would be their last chance to cooperate. Previous deadlines have passed without consequences.
Speaking after a London meeting, Blair and Ahern said the new Assembly must form a 12-member cabinet within a week after the election, and be ready to receive control of most Northern Ireland government departments by March 26. Failure would mean the Assembly's abolition the next day.
Power-sharing was the central goal of the Good Friday peace pact of 1998, but a four-party coalition collapsed in 2002 amid incessant Protestant-Sinn Fein arguments over the IRA's future. Since then, Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley has stressed he will cooperate only after Sinn Fein accepts British law and order.