Belfast rivals edge near new power-sharing deal; British, Irish premiers hope for breakthrough

By Shawn Pogatchnik, AP
Friday, January 29, 2010

NIreland parties near deal to save coalition pact

DUBLIN — Rival leaders of Northern Ireland’s faltering Catholic-Protestant administration were edging closer to a new power-sharing deal Friday following a marathon diplomatic effort, British and Irish officials said.

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, demanded that the Protestant side stop blocking a plan to transfer control of Northern Ireland’s security and legal system from Britain to local hands.

Prime Ministers Gordon Brown of Britain and Brian Cowen of Ireland — both of whom also want justice powers transferred to the Belfast coalition — rushed Monday to Northern Ireland to oversee three days and two nights of negotiations between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists.

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, combined with criticism from their voters, seems to have spurred Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists to negotiate more seriously Thursday and Friday. They and the prime ministers’ key deputies, Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward and Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin, kept talking until 5:30 a.m. Friday and resumed four hours later.

Democratic Unionist negotiator Sammy Wilson said his party was determined to avoid any Anglo-Irish imposition of a solution in preference to “a deal made in Ulster.”

In the most dramatic sign that a decision could be near, Sinn Fein negotiators left the Hillsborough Castle negotiating venue Friday afternoon to brief other party officials on the potential agreement.

Rising security at the castle, including the police deployment of bomb-sniffing dogs, fueled media speculation that Brown and Cowen might return to the castle Friday night to confirm that a deal had been reached.

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

“Progress is being made, there’s no doubt about that,” said one Irish official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition he not be named because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the record while talks continued.

The official said neither Cowen nor Brown would fly back to Northern Ireland “unless they’re guaranteed that the deal is going to be done, and we’re not at that stage. No one’s going to come up here to witness failure.”

The moderate politician widely tipped to be Northern Ireland’s justice minister in event of a breakthrough, Alliance Party leader David Ford, sounded upbeat about prospects for a breakthrough.

Ford said Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists had both negotiated in good faith since the premiers’ red-eyed ultimatum Wednesday.

“I believe that if that same willingness continues, in a spirit of goodwill, we have the opportunity to create a new beginning for politics in Northern Ireland today,” Ford said.

Ford’s Alliance is the only party in Northern Ireland that actively campaigns on both sides of the community. It wins too few votes to merit a seat in the administration, but Ford has been identified by both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists as their preferred compromise candidate.

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