Hain's deadline threat nonsense, says Dodds


DUP MP Nigel Dodds has flatly contradicted Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain's interpretation of what will happen if the March 26th deadline for restoring powersharing government to Stormont is not met.

In the clearest signal of a tough and ongoing internal party debate, Mr Dodds last night told The Irish Times that "the DUP is in no way fazed or intimidated" by what he called the "spin" emanating from the Northern Ireland Office.

Specifically, Mr Dodds rejected Mr Hain's assertion that the choice on March 26th lies between "devolution" or "dissolution", and that failure then and any subsequent attempt to restore devolved government could take years and would require fresh elections.

Questioning the legal basis for Mr Hain's position, Mr Dodds insisted that a new Act of Parliament could simply re-instate the Northern Ireland Assembly on the basis of last week's election - even if it was dissolved following a failure to appoint an executive on Monday week.

His comments came as the Belfast Telegraph published the results of a straw poll of DUP Assembly members suggesting that, while prepared to share power, most think it unlikely to be achieved by the set deadline.

In a newspaper article at the weekend, Mr Hain said: "Anyone trying to push devolution beyond March 26th, or trying to stop devolution altogether, will find that they will be left behind, perhaps for years, because who knows when there might be another opportunity to get the institutions up and running again?"

The Secretary of State went on to warn: "In any event, it will require a fresh election. But if, as I believe, there is success, then Northern Ireland, for the first time, can decide the future on solid foundations. It's the moment to decide. The parties have just two weeks to do so."

Dismissing this as "nonsense" and "classic hardball", however, Mr Dodds cited the precedent set by Mr Hain himself in creating the "transitional Assembly" that paved the way for last week's election. "The DUP is in no way fazed or intimidated by the NIO line and this talk of a new election," he asserted. "We know it's nonsense, they [the British government] know it's nonsense, and they should just get on with delivery."

Mr Dodds' assessment could be influential when the DUP executive meets, probably next Friday, to decide whether to comply with the March 26th deadline stipulated by the British and Irish governments. There is agreement now across all sections of the DUP that party leader the Rev Ian Paisley is eager to become co-equal First Minister in a new executive with Sinn Féin's deputy first minister-designate Martin McGuinness, and that he would like to take office on Monday week.

As reported in yesterday's Irish Times, some DUP MPs pressing for a longer period in which to "test" Sinn Féin's bona fides also suspect Dr Paisley might be prepared to force the issue to a positive outcome at the party's executive meeting.

However, one said last night he did not believe "it would come to that", suggesting Dr Paisley would rather judge the mood of the party before committing himself. A second well-placed source also said that deputy leader Peter Robinson would be important in assessing the implications for long-term party unity of meeting the deadline, rather than seeking delay possibly until May.