British, Irish leaders launch all-night effort to salvage Catholic-Protestant gov’t in Belfast

By Shawn Pogatchnik, AP
Monday, January 25, 2010

Unraveling Ulster government faces all-night talks

HILLSBOROUGH, Northern Ireland — The British and Irish governments launched a round-the-clock mission Monday to save Northern Ireland’s unraveling administration, a Catholic-Protestant coalition that was supposed to forge a lasting era of nonviolent compromise.

The British and Irish prime ministers, Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen, arrived together at Hillsborough Castle and brought together local leaders who are threatening to pull the plug on power-sharing.

The premiers pledged to wage a negotiating marathon through Tuesday to secure a new deal between the coalition’s unhappy couple: the British Protestants of the Democratic Unionists and the Irish Catholics of Sinn Fein.

“It is our intention to go through the night,” said Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin, another high-profile talks broker. “We are prepared to stay overnight to ensure that we bring these talks to a conclusion and to get the key issues agreed.”

At stake is the central achievement of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday accord of 1998: a cross-community government for Northern Ireland drawn equally from the Protestant majority and Catholic minority. Such cooperation was designed to consign to history a conflict over this long-disputed corner of the United Kingdom that left 3,600 dead.

The major Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein, warns it will withdraw from the 2½-year-old coalition — forcing its collapse — unless the Protestant side accepts that control of Northern Ireland’s justice system should be transferred from Britain to local hands.

Britain and Ireland both support the move in recognition that the outlawed Irish Republican Army has renounced violence and Sinn Fein and is encouraging Catholics to support and join the traditionally Protestant police.

But the Democratic Unionists are blocking the move in hopes of winning a key concession on a matter of central symbolic importance in Northern Ireland — the traditional right of Protestants to parade throughout the territory each summer. The most divisive marches have been barred from passing Sinn Fein strongholds since the late 1990s by a British government-appointed Parades Commission that the Democratic Unionists want abolished.

Cowen and Brown met the co-leaders of the coalition — Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness — at the start of Monday’s diplomacy.

But tellingly, the Sinn Fein and Democratic Unionist delegations remained separate throughout a series of meetings during which British and Irish officials sought to narrow the policy differences between them, phrase by phrase, word by word.

Earlier, McGuinness and Robinson did hold their own face-to-face talks in Belfast that aides half-jokingly branded “High Noon.” Neither spoke publicly after their 35-minute meeting — but their telephoned accounts to Cowen and Brown spurred both leaders to fly to Northern Ireland.

Despite the prime ministers’ intervention, a breakdown of power-sharing looks more likely than a breakthrough because of the bad blood between the two principal parties and the electoral test they both face.

The souring Sinn Fein-Democratic Unionist relationship comes against a backdrop of continuing violence by IRA dissidents who oppose the outlawed group’s 1997 cease-fire and the peace accord it inspired.

Two men were arrested Monday on suspicion of involvement in the dissidents’ latest attack Jan. 8, when a bomb detonated under the car of a policeman. The target, a prominent Catholic officer, lost a leg and awoke from a coma only Sunday. Analysts warn that a breakdown in power-sharing could fuel support for the dissidents in Sinn Fein’s strongholds.

Both Robinson and McGuinness appear reluctant to compromise too much in advance of the U.K. election, to be held in the next few months, in part because Northern Ireland voters in all recent elections have punished moderate candidates and rewarded the most stubborn negotiators.

The Democratic Unionists also have annoyed Sinn Fein by seeking a pre-election pact with Brown’s rival, Conservative Party leader David Cameron, whom polls favor to oust Brown from power. Sinn Fein accuses the Protestants of delaying progress in hope of securing a stronger negotiating position with backing from a future Conservative government.

Since Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists formed an unlikely partnership in May 2007, the traditional enemies have clashed on so many issues that it’s raised fundamental questions about whether they can deliver effective government.

The Democratic Unionists have sought the toughest possible terms with Sinn Fein on how their coalition would oversee the courts, police and other agencies of law and order. Their disagreement means Britain retains power over justice and policing — something that Protestants accept but Sinn Fein finds intolerable in the long term.

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