Northern Ireland power-sharing faces make-or-break talks; British, Irish gov’ts could step in

By Shawn Pogatchnik, AP
Monday, January 25, 2010

Unraveling Belfast government faces ‘High Noon’

HILLSBOROUGH, Northern Ireland — The British and Irish governments launched a 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 vowed to do what they could to persuade local leaders not to pull the plug on power-sharing. Both leaders planned to talk late into the night and to maintain the diplomatic push Tuesday.

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

The major Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein, is warning it will withdraw from the 2½-year-old coalition — triggering its collapse — unless the Protestant side accepts the need to transfer control of Northern Ireland’s justice system from Britain to local hands.

Britain and Ireland both back the transfer. Sinn Fein formally accepted the authority of the Northern Ireland police as part of the deal, ending decades of support for Irish Republican Army attacks on the security forces.

But the Protestants of the Democratic Unionist Party are blocking the move until Sinn Fein meets other demands, including permission for Protestant fraternal groups to parade near Catholic districts, an annual sectarian tradition that caused widespread rioting until restricted in the late 1990s.

“We believe the outstanding issues are resolvable,” Cowen said. “We believe with goodwill, determination and good faith on all sides that it should be possible to do that.”

Cowen and Brown met first with the bickering Belfast chieftains of power-sharing, Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness, and other senior officials from both parties.

Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Shaun Woodward, and Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin are at their prime ministers’ side in Monday night’s talks.

Earlier Monday, McGuinness and Robinson held their own face-to-face talks in Belfast that aides half-jokingly branded “High Noon.”

McGuinness told reporters at Stormont Parliamentary Building in Belfast before meeting Robinson he was “still determined to make this place work.”

Neither McGuinness nor Robinson spoke after their 35-minute meeting.

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 also 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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