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British official optimistic on accord in N. Ireland

Defends his judgment of IRA's activities

Peter Hain, Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, yesterday dismissed as ``background noise" criticism leveled at him by Protestant unionist politicians for his statement that the IRA is no longer engaged in criminal or violent activity.

The criticism comes as the British and Irish governments push for the restoration of the local power-sharing assembly between British unionists and Irish Republicans in the region .

Hain said he is confident the Nov. 24 deadline for a restored assembly would be met . If not, he told the Globe , the two governments are prepared to ``move on" and forge a deeper partnership in administering the disputed part of the United Kingdom on Ireland.

Visiting Boston this week for the first time since Prime Minister Tony Blair appointed him 14 months ago, Hain said the unionist criticism, calling him naive and foolish, was misdirected. He said his statement Tuesday -- that the Irish Republican Army had kept its pledge to refrain from paramilitary and criminal activity -- was merely a restatement of the most recent findings of the Independent Monitoring Commission, charged with overseeing the disarming of paramilitary groups.

Hain, speaking nearly a year after the IRA formally ended its 35-year armed campaign to rid Northern Ireland of British rule, said he expects criticism as politicians prepare their supporters for the next political battle . Compromise will be necessary to resume the power-sharing government that was suspended in October 2002, amid allegations that the IRA was spying on politicians at Stormont, the local assembly.

``This is part of the background noise that you hear when there's an endgame," Hain said.

He said that his statements about the IRA keeping its promises were backed by Ireland's justice minister, Michael McDowell, one of the IRA's most withering critics.

Hain said Northern Ireland's business community , dominated by moderate unionists, is lobbying members of the Democratic Unionist Party, led by fundamentalist preacher Rev. Ian Paisley, to put aside their qualms about the IRA in order to resume power-sharing with the army's political wing, Sinn Fein. There was a similar push by business leaders to back the 1998 Good Friday Agreement aimed at ending violent conflict in Northern Ireland. But in the ensuing eight years, Protestant unionists have grown increasingly skeptical about both the IRA's intentions and what they see as a new political order that has rewarded Catholic nationalists at their expense.

Hain, however, believes the improved quality of life is slowly but inexorably overcoming unionist anxiety. In a land where some 3,500 people were killed in a 35-year period, only a handful of murders each year are now attributed to the island's political and sectarian divide. Last year, some 2 million tourists visited Northern Ireland, more than the 1.5 million people who live there. Housing prices in Belfast have risen 30 percent in recent years.

``By any measure, life in Northern Ireland is better than it was," Hain said. ``I think the politicians are getting to the point where the people are leaving them behind."

Still, he acknowledged that the British government's plans to reduce Northern Ireland's reliance on the public sector, which produces more than 70 percent of the jobs and income, are unpopular, as is the plan to introduce water fees in a land where it rains almost every day and water is traditionally plentiful and free.

``My reply is, if you don't like it, get into government and do it yourself," he said, calling on local politicians to put up or shut up when it comes to taking over responsibilities from the British government .

Born in Kenya, Hain grew up in South Africa, where his parents were anti-apartheid activists. He moved to London when he was 16 and became one of Britain's best known anti-apartheid activists before entering politics.

He said yesterday that despite what appears to be political stalemate , both sides are engaged in behind-the-scenes work, reminiscent of when apartheid ended in South Africa.

Hain said his visit to New York and Boston was aimed at shoring up support, especially among Irish-Americans , for the Anglo-Irish plan to restore power-sharing. He said integration between the two parts of the island was happening organically, despite the political stalemate: There is a single electricity market for the island, and people routinely cross the border to use hospitals or shopping centers in the different jurisdictions.

Asked whether he believed the Nov. 24 deadline on power sharing would be met, he said, ``I'm very keen to meet the deadline. Am I worried? No."

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