Northern Ireland leaders: New power-sharing pact to save Catholic-Protestant coalition is near

By Shawn Pogatchnik, AP
Monday, February 1, 2010

NIreland Catholics, Protestants close to new pact

DUBLIN — Northern Ireland’s rival leaders said Monday they are close to clinching a new power-sharing agreement that would save their Catholic-Protestant coalition following a week of round-the-clock talks.

The Northern Ireland administration had been on the brink of collapse following threats from Sinn Fein, the major Irish Catholic party, to withdraw from its 2 1/2-year-old partnership with the British Protestants of the Democratic Unionist Party. Such power-sharing was the central goal of Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord.

But Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said their differences have dramatically narrowed following marathon negotiations convened last week by the British and Irish prime ministers, Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen.

Adams and Democratic Unionist negotiators said they were optimistic of completing negotiations Monday or Tuesday. Brown and Cowen were expected to travel back to Hillsborough Castle, the negotiating venue southwest of Belfast, whenever an agreement is confirmed.

Adams said it had taken 70 to 80 hours of negotiating last week — in meetings that typically ran past 3 a.m. each night — just to establish that both sides genuinely wanted a compromise. He said the most recent 30 hours had produced the lion’s share of progress.

Speaking as Sinn Fein entered talks with Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson, Adams said he was “satisfied that they know that there’s going to be a necessity of a deal, and very soon.”

But when asked if an agreement would be revealed later Monday, Adams said that wasn’t guaranteed.

“We’re not there yet,” he said. “Some significant work has been done, and we’re meeting soon I hope to finish off the remaining points.”

As hopes rose of a deal, Cowen canceled a planned trip Monday to Madrid to discuss European Union issues with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. His office said he was on standby to travel north.

Power-sharing has suffered repeated breakdowns and long periods in limbo because of chronic conflicts between Protestant leaders and the Irish Republican Army-linked Sinn Fein.

The most recent coalition gained office in 2007 after the outlawed IRA disarmed and Sinn Fein accepted the authority of Northern Ireland’s police force.

In exchange for those long-sought moves, Sinn Fein expected the new Northern Ireland coalition to receive powers quickly from Britain to oversee the province’s police and justice system.

Britain, Ireland and the U.S. government all support transfer of law-and-order powers from London to Belfast, but the Democratic Unionists have vetoed the move, citing a long list of concerns, inspiring Sinn Fein’s threat to quit.

A Sinn Fein withdrawal would have collapsed power-sharing and forced early elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the legislature that appoints the coalition.

Monday’s emerging deal would give Sinn Fein its key demand for a fixed date — in early May — when Britain would transfer powers to a new Justice Department in Belfast. It also would advance another Sinn Fein demand for a new law promoting Gaelic, Ireland’s little-used native tongue that Protestants view with hostility.

The Democratic Unionists in turn have demanded a major overhaul of Britain’s systems for mediating marches by hard-line Protestant groups, a summertime sectarian tradition at the heart of Northern Ireland’s conflict.

The Democratic Unionists want decade-old bans on several marches near Sinn Fein power bases to be overturned, citing the marchers’ right to freedom of assembly. They also seek the abolition of the Parades Commission, a cross-community panel responsible for imposing those restrictions following widespread rioting in the mid-1990s.

The emerging compromise would retain the Parades Commission but shift responsibilities to mediators, who would be tasked with bringing together Protestant marchers and Catholic residents groups to broker local compromises.

All sides agree that these mediators will face a difficult job. The marchers generally have refused face-to-face talks with the Catholic groups, who generally say they will never permit the marches to resume.

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