UK, Irish premiers unveil ‘pathway’ to save Belfast power-sharing _ but end talks with no deal

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

UK, Irish premiers offer path to new Belfast deal

HILLSBOROUGH, Northern Ireland — Northern Ireland’s politicians must keep negotiating instead of breaking up their Catholic-Protestant power-sharing government, the British and Irish prime ministers declared Wednesday as they presented a compromise plan to the feuding sides.

Yet Gordon Brown of Britain and Brian Cowen of Ireland ended their three-day diplomatic mission without persuading local parties to accept the plan. The prime ministers said they would not publish details of the compromise in hopes that lower-level officials could seal a deal by the weekend.

“We believe that we have produced a pathway to an agreement,” Brown said with Cowen at his side.

Power sharing, the central vision of the province’s U.S.-brokered 1998 peace deal, is seen as the best way to end a conflict between Northern Ireland’s majority Protestants and its minority Catholics that had claimed more than 3,600 lives since the late 1960s.

The 2 1/2-year-old government coalition is on the brink of collapse following a long-running dispute over when it will take responsibility from Britain for the province’s police and justice system.

The rival partners of the Northern Ireland administration — the Irish Catholics of Sinn Fein and the British Protestants of the Democratic Unionist Party — offered no immediate reaction to Brown’s and Cowen’s “pathway” document.

But in a hopeful sign, both parties’ negotiators remained at the talks venue, Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast.

Brown and Cowen said they wanted the talks to continue through Friday under the direction of their deputies, Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward and Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin.

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

Sinn Fein, Britain, Ireland and the United States all wanted the move to happen by 2008, one year after Northern Ireland’s newborn coalition took control of other government departments.

But the Protestant side remains bitterly 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.

Democratic Unionist negotiator Edwin Poots said Wednesday that 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. Brown said the Anglo-Irish plans call for this to happen by early May.

That 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.

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.

The Democratic Unionists seek painful concessions from Sinn Fein in return for any move — specifically an overhaul in how Northern Ireland’s summertime parades by the hard-line Protestant Orange Order are 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 Protestant parades from passing Sinn Fein strongholds. Britain responded by forming a Parades Commission that imposed restrictions on Orange Order parade routes.

The Democratic Unionists, whose leaders are mostly Orangemen, want Britain to shut the Parades Commission and reverse parade restrictions.

The prime ministers’ compromise plans suggest that the Parades Commission should remain, but a new tier of mediators would try to broker local agreements between Orangemen and anti-Orange groups, removing the need for Parades Commission-ordered restrictions.

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