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Irish prime minister urges revival of N. Ireland cooperation

DUBLIN -- Northern Ireland's peace process will face "an enormous tragedy" if political rivals cannot agree this month to revive a Catholic-Protestant administration in the British territory, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said yesterday.

Ahern said he was confident that as part of a power-sharing deal, the outlawed Irish Republican Army would disarm fully -- a key sticking point in past efforts to make Catholic-Protestant cooperation work.

He urged the north's Protestant leaders to forge a coalition now with Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party. Otherwise, he said, there would be no opportunity to forge a deal before 2006.

Protestant leaders who thought they would get a better deal if they delayed a decision were "really wrong," and years of lost power-sharing "would be an enormous tragedy," Ahern said.

Negotiating progress was unlikely in 2005 because Northern Ireland parties will be focusing on elections and Britain will be preoccupied with European Union summits and other meetings, Ahern added.

The Irish leader also gave his strongest signal yet that, if Protestant leaders do share power now with Sinn Fein, the IRA would respond by scrapping the rest of its hidden weaponry by the end of the year. Ahern said media reports that the IRA had offered to disarm fully by Christmas "should not be discounted" and were "near the mark."

A joint Catholic-Protestant administration -- the core goal of Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace accord of 1998 -- suffered a string of breakdowns over the IRA's refusal to disarm. The moderate-led coalition collapsed two years ago after police accused Sinn Fein's top legislative aide of running an IRA spying operation inside government circles.

The IRA, which killed about 1,800 people from 1970 to 1997 in hopes of abolishing Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, was supposed to disarm fully by mid-2000 as part of the Good Friday deal. The underground organization didn't begin the process until October 2001 and has refused to give the public any details of what weaponry it has surrendered, a policy that undermined Protestant support for power-sharing with Sinn Fein.

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