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Hain: Take power or shut up shop

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- As vote-counting gets under way following Northern Ireland's parliamentary assembly elections, Peter Hain, the British Northern Ireland secretary, talks to CNN's Adrian Finighan.

CNN: The buses are running in Northern Ireland, the refuse is collected, schools are open, shops and businesses are thriving. Why do the people of Northern Ireland need devolved government?

Peter Hain: Because it's far better, if you believe in a democracy, to have locally elected politicians, elected by the people of Northern Ireland, accountable to them, that they can get rid of if they don't like. I'm a direct rule minister, appointed by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair. I'm not accountable to anybody in Northern Ireland. Obviously, I take account of their wishes, but it's far better [to have locally elected leaders].

And for another reason: Northern Ireland's troubled and torn history all its existence, and the island of Ireland's difficult divisions, tensions and conflicts over the centuries, including its relationship with Britain, have created circumstances in which it is vital that we get people working together -- Unionists and Nationalists, Republicans -- and making sure that they take the decisions in the interests of local people.

CNN: To a certain extent, though, this is a last ditch effort, isn't it? Are you confident that the two main parties can work together? We had the DUP's Ian Paisley, only yesterday, speaking to Robin Oakley, our political editor, saying that he was still not sure that he could work with Sinn Fein. (Watch Oakley's report on the prospects for power-sharing)

PH: Well, he's been elected on a mandate, as have all the other politicians, to share power and if you look at the early signs of these elections -- and the votes haven't even started being counted -- my information is that there's a great majority of the people who have voted for parties who want to share power together and get on with the job of governing Northern Ireland. That includes DUP voters, Ian Paisley's party voters.

So I think the sentiment in the public's mind is, "Get on with the job, do your jobs for the first time in over four years" -- and remember Stormont has been suspended for all that time, although the politicians have been paid. It's now time for the politicians to count the votes and then see where they are. Do they want to carry out the mandate of the people to work together? -- which is what I believe that mandate will be.

CNN: You've set a deadline of March 26 for them to sort out their differences once we know the results of this voting. Why did you set that deadline? I'm going to sound a note of cynicism here. Is that because Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, wants this done and dusted and power-sharing up and running in Northern Ireland before he steps down some time later this year?

PH: It's because both Tony Blair and the Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Aherne, feel that after 10 years at this -- and the two of them have given enormous energy, shown enormous vision and determination and a lot of skill to get the parties to where they are -- they both feel it's really time and it's the moment to make a decision. After all, we've seen a tremendous transformation in Northern Ireland. The bombs have stopped going off; the bullets have stopped being fired; there's prosperity and stability and peace on a basis never before seen; and Republicans have made historic moves; the IRA giving up its war, decommissioning its arsenal of weapons and only in the last couple of months supporting policing and the rule of law.

Now, these are fundamental historic shifts and, given that, the traditional lack of trust of Unionists in sharing power with Nationalists and Republicans needs to be put on one side. I think Ian Paisley, as the leader -- I expect -- of the largest party that has probably made gains in the election yesterday, is now ready to assume power.

CNN: I have a feeling that you won't want to be pessimistic here, but I have to ask a fairly pessimistic question. What happens if an agreement can't be reached by March 26? Do you foresee the possibility, if direct rule from London is imposed, or continues in Northern Ireland, could we see a return to the bad old days in Northern Ireland?

PH: I don't think so. But what's different about this deadline of March 26, just over two weeks away, is it's set in statute. There's never been a deadline like this, where either they devolve, either they take power, sharing government together, or it all shuts up and dissolves and Stormont closes and I take power back again and we move on to plan B. That's the very clear choice upon which the parties, once the votes are counted, need to make their minds up. Do they want to share power -- as I believe the overwhelming number of voters have decided in the way they cast their votes yesterday -- or do they want to give up and say, "We can't do our jobs together"? I'm optimistic that we can achieve a working government on March 26, but it's a very stark choice for them -- get into power, or shut up shop.

CNN: And what is plan B? Will you have another go at power-sharing, at some sort of power-sharing initiative at some point in the future?

PH: If this falls over on March 26, there is no prospect of another settlement for a very long time, maybe years. After all, having moved so far -- the voters just having voted yesterday, I believe overwhelmingly, for the parties to share power -- I don't think the voters will tolerate another long period of procrastination. They'll say, "Do your jobs, or say you can't do your jobs together." I think that's the message the politicians are getting.


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Peter Hain: "If this falls over on March 26, there is no prospect of another settlement for a very long time, maybe years."

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