Belfast foes break deadline in round-the-clock talks, struggle to seal new power-sharing pact

By Shawn Pogatchnik, AP
Friday, January 29, 2010

NIreland parties struggling to save coalition pact

DUBLIN — Rival leaders of Northern Ireland’s faltering Catholic-Protestant administration edged closer to a new power-sharing deal Friday following a marathon diplomatic effort, but negotiators on both sides said the final hurdles might be too high to clear.

Northern Ireland’s peacemaking coalition — the central achievement of the province’s 1998 peace accord — has teetered on the brink of collapse since the major Irish Catholic party, Sinn Fein, warned it could end its awkward partnership with the major British Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists.

The Irish Republican Army-linked party, which has already delivered IRA disarmament and growing Catholic support for the police, is demanding that the Protestant side stop blocking a plan to transfer control of Northern Ireland’s security and legal system from Britain to local hands.

“Have we given up on having an agreement? No. Have we more work to do? Yes,” Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams told reporters Friday night during a break in negotiations expected to run overnight and into Saturday. “Are the parties doing the work? Yes. We just persist.”

Adams declined to discuss the timing of a Sinn Fein walkout from power-sharing in event of failure.

Prime Ministers Gordon Brown of Britain and Brian Cowen of Ireland — who also want justice powers transferred to the Belfast coalition — rushed Monday to Northern Ireland after Sinn Fein and Democratic Unionist leaders warned them of an imminent collapse in their coalition.

Their high-profile effort ended Wednesday in frustrated exhaustion. The departing prime ministers urged both sides to narrow the ground between them by Friday. Otherwise, they warned, the two governments would publish their own Anglo-Irish blueprint for saving power-sharing.

That deadline was quietly broken Friday as the governments decided that, so long as the two local parties keep talking, it would be distracting to publish their own plans.

All sides did report making progress Thursday and Friday under the direction of the prime ministers’ key deputies, Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward and Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin.

They talked until 5:30 a.m. Friday, resumed four hours later and weren’t expected to stop until 1 a.m. Saturday. Participants said they would keep going Saturday morning.

In exchange for accepting the transfer of law-and-order powers, the Democratic Unionists are demanding that the Catholic side accept a major reversal on how Northern Ireland’s divisive Protestant parades are managed.

The summertime marches triggered chronic trouble with Catholics until the late 1990s, when a British government-organized panel began barring them from passing Sinn Fein power bases, where the worst rioting occurred. The Democratic Unionists want the panel disbanded and parade restrictions made a responsibility of the power-sharing government itself.

Democratic Unionist negotiator Edwin Poots accused Sinn Fein of seeking to make only vague commitments on the parades issue couched in impenetrable language. He said Protestants were demanding “a deal that every Ulster man and woman can read and understand very clearly.”

Poots said Sinn Fein negotiators “think they’re going to ride roughshod over the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), that they’re going to bully the unionist people. That’s not going to happen. We’ll either get a fair deal or we’ll not get a deal at all.”

Earlier, rising security levels at the castle had fueled media speculation that Brown and Cowen might be about to return to confirm that a deal had been reached.

But British and Irish officials stressed that the prime ministers would come back only if a deal was in the bag.

will not be displayed