British, Irish premiers cancel parliament events for final push on new Northern Ireland accord

By Shawn Pogatchnik, AP
Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Northern Ireland talks face critical day

HILLSBOROUGH, Northern Ireland — The prime ministers of Britain and Ireland canceled their parliament appearances Wednesday to keep pushing politicians in Northern Ireland into a new compromise to save the region’s Catholic-Protestant government.

Gordon Brown of Britain and Brian Cowen of Ireland, who arrived in a surprise move Monday night to prevent the collapse of Northern Ireland’s four-party government, have slept little since. At stake is the survival of the centerpiece of Northern Ireland’s 12-year-old peace accord.

The premiers brokered talks between the key Northern Ireland players — the British Protestants of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the Irish Catholics of Sinn Fein — until 5 a.m. Wednesday and began a final diplomatic push at midmorning.

Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists have spent years clashing over the next key step in their uneasy partnership: taking control of the territory’s police and justice system from Britain.

Sinn Fein, Britain and Ireland all wanted the move to happen by 2008, one year after Northern Ireland’s unwieldy coalition gained office and took control of other government departments previously run by Britain.

But the Protestant side remains divided over the prospect that former Irish Republican Army commanders in Sinn Fein — men involved in killing police officers and judges — would have any role now in overseeing law and order.

Sinn Fein has threatened to walk out of the government coalition, forcing its collapse and new elections, unless the Protestant side stops vetoing the move now.

Red-eyed negotiators from both parties said Wednesday that the prime ministers’ intervention and intensive all-night talks had narrowed the ground between the sides, but prospects for an agreement later Wednesday remained dim.

Democratic Unionist negotiator Edwin Poots emphasized that his party would not support the governments’ plans just because the prime ministers had put so much effort into the negotiations. Poots said his party was “not in any mood to sign up to a bad deal.”

Sinn Fein wants the Protestants to accept a fixed date for Northern Ireland’s proposed Justice Department to be up and running with a local politician in charge.

Anglo-Irish plans circulated to both local parties Tuesday night have proposed dates in early May. The Democratic Unionists insist no date will be acceptable unless its own demands are met first.

Early May would coincide with the third anniversary of the rise of Northern Ireland power-sharing — and also is the most widely expected time for the next British general election.

That event is overshadowing all political calculations in Northern Ireland, because Brown is expected to lose power to Britain’s Conservatives, a party traditionally sympathetic to the Protestant side here and frosty to Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein negotiator Conor Murphy said his party had been too patient since 2008 and accused the Democratic Unionists of scheming to drag out any decision in expectation that the Conservatives soon will rise to power in London.

“For several months the DUP (Democratic Unionists) have been content to talk very positively outside the talks but to make absolutely no progress inside them,” Murphy said.

The Democratic Unionists seek painful concessions from Sinn Fein in return for any move. They specifically demand an overhaul in how Northern Ireland’s most divisive events — summertime parades by the hard-line Protestant Orange Order — are mediated and restricted.

Catholic opposition to such Protestant demonstrations of power fueled Northern Ireland’s descent into civil war in the late 1960s. Northern Ireland also suffered widespread rioting in the 1990s when Catholic militants sought to block several Protestant parades from passing Sinn Fein strongholds.

Britain responded by forming a Parades Commission that imposed restrictions on Orange Order parade routes, auguring in a decade of summertime peace. But the Democratic Unionists, whose leaders are mostly Orangemen, want Britain to shut the Parades Commission and reverse parade restrictions.

The Anglo-Irish compromise plans suggest that the Parades Commission should remain, but new authority would be handed to mediators who would try to broker local agreements between Orangemen and anti-Orange groups. Orangemen typically have refused to negotiate with their Catholic opponents.

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