Diplomatic push to save Catholic-Protestant coalition in Northern Ireland suffers new delay

By Shawn Pogatchnik, AP
Monday, February 1, 2010

Northern Ireland deal temporarily delayed

HILLSBOROUGH, Northern Ireland — Northern Ireland’s major British Protestant party unexpectedly held back Monday from accepting a deal with its Irish Catholic partners to save their 2½-year-old administration.

Both sides emphasized that they remain close to an agreement.

Their dispute involves a long-delayed plan to transfer government responsibility for Northern Ireland’s police and justice system from Britain to local hands.

The Protestants of the Democratic Unionist Party have repeatedly blocked the move. They have made it conditional on winning concessions in other areas, particularly the right of Protestant groups to march near hostile Catholic districts.

Fed up with two years of delays, Sinn Fein threatened this month to withdraw from the coalition. This would destroy power-sharing, the central goal of a 1998 peace accord designed to end decades of conflict that left 3,700 dead.

Sinn Fein and the British, Irish and U.S. governments all had hoped to see local control of law enforcement, the court system and criminal justice standards by 2008. But in the past week of negotiations, the Democratic Unionists have tied the move to abolishing a British-appointed Parades Commission that has severely restricted Protestant parades over the past decade. Sinn Fein rejects this demand.

British and Irish government officials at the main negotiating venue, Hillsborough Castle southwest of Belfast, had been preparing for an expected Monday afternoon return of their prime ministers, Gordon Brown of Britain and Brian Cowen of Ireland, to announce a breakthrough.

Sinn Fein lawmakers expressed broad satisfaction with the package on offer. But the premiers remained grounded in London and Dublin, respectively, as an internal Democratic Unionist meeting intended to sign off on the deal turned into a daylong argument.

Under terms of the proposed deal, Britain would transfer justice responsibilities from London to Belfast in early May. That meets Sinn Fein’s key demand for a fixed deadline when this would happen.

The new Justice Department in Northern Ireland would be run by a neutral third-party figure, not a Democratic Unionist or Sinn Fein official.

A Democratic Unionist official declined to offer details of the internal dispute holding up the deal. He said leader Peter Robinson was facing strong criticism from party lawmakers who believe the proposed deal remains “too wishy-washy” on key issues.

The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because Democratic Unionist negotiators and lawmakers were instructed not to talk to journalists until the meeting had ended and Robinson had spoken.

Earlier, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said he was “satisfied that they (the Democratic Unionists) know that there’s going to be a necessity of a deal, and very soon.”

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