Hain rules out deadline extension

(agency report)

BRITAIN'S NORTHERN Ireland secretary of state Peter Hain warned the north's political parties that there was not "a cat in hell's chance" of extending the 25 March deadline for forming a power-sharing executive.

He said that any extension of the deadline would require him to introduce new emergency legislation to prevent the immediate shutdown of Stormont.

"There's not a cat in hell's chance of me doing that or even if I tried it of Parliament accepting it. It's simply a fantasy to think that fresh emergency legislation will be brought forward when the whole process was established by emergency legislation only a few months ago."

Mr Hain said if no deal was reached on 26 March, Stormont was likely to remain closed at least until 2009.

He added that recent remarks by SDLP leader Mark Durkan and some DUP backbenchers suggesting that the deadline could be postponed reflected a lack of understanding of the legislation that followed last year's talks at St Andrews.

"This legislation is like no other legislation since the Good Friday agreement. It closes Stormont down. Stormont doesn't go into limbo, it closes down. If it dissolves on 26 March, it doesn't allow Stormont to come back without a fresh election," he said.

He warned politicians in the North that, if they believe that the March deadline is flexible and that they can gain advantage by stalling the talks, they are mistaken.

Speaking in Washington, where he has been briefing the Bush administration and US legislators on the political situation in the North, Mr Hain also said that this week's statement by Newry police chief Bobby Hunniford praising Sinn Féin for its co-operation over the murder of taxi driver Stíofán Loughran showed that the party was fulfilling its commitment to support the PSNI.

Secretary Hain also announced that he intends to attend the Ireland v England rugby match in Dublin's Croke Park next weekend.

The British government is considering making a symbolic gesture to mark the killing of 14 civilians by British security forces at Croke Park in 1920, at the height of the Anglo-Irish war of Independence.

"That's being considered and discussed, the question of marking it. But my very presence there marks it. I've never been to Croke Park. I don't think any other British secretary of state or cabinet minister has been there. That is marking it in itself. If people want me to do something else while I'm there, well then I'll obviously think about it," Mr Hain said.

Mr Hain declined to speculate on the nature of a possible act of commemoration or if it would involve laying a wreath in memory of those who were murdered.

He said that both the British and Irish governments believed his attendance at next week's game was significant.

"The Taoiseach has invited me personally. The prime minister has asked me to go and I've changed my diary with some difficulty to attend. And I'm looking forward to it, backing Ireland to beat England," he said.

The Croke Park shootings took place on 21 November 1920, known as Bloody Sunday, hours after the IRA, led by Michael Collins, assassinated 14 British agents and informers.

British security forces converged on Croke Park with the declared intention of searching male spectators as they left a Gaelic football match between Dublin and Tipperary.

Police began firing at the crowd inside the stadium, killing seven people immediately and fatally wounding five more. In the panic that followed, two people were trampled to death by the crowd. (IAIS)

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