Protestant lawmaker says 39 pct reject proposed new Belfast power-sharing deal with Catholics

By Shawn Pogatchnik, AP
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Protestant split imperils new Belfast deal

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — A compromise plan to save Northern Ireland’s Catholic-Protestant government is unraveling because the Protestant party in that coalition is badly split on whether to accept it, a senior party official said Tuesday.

The politician told The Associated Press that 39 percent of the Democratic Unionist Party’s lawmakers voted against the proposed agreement Monday, compromising the leadership of Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson.

Robinson has spent the past week in round-the-clock talks with the Irish Catholics of Sinn Fein to negotiate a salvation plan for their 2 1/2-year-old power-sharing coalition, the central achievement of Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord.

But Robinson — whose authority already has suffered from his politician wife’s sex-and-ethics scandal — says he won’t move forward unless he can take the vast majority of his party with him.

Sinn Fein triggered Northern Ireland’s political crisis last month by threatening to withdraw from the coalition. Sinn Fein leaders say they’re fed up waiting for the Protestant side to accept terms for taking control of Northern Ireland’s justice system, a move that Britain hoped Northern Ireland would make in 2008.

A Sinn Fein pullout would wreck the power-sharing government and trigger early elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The British and Irish governments had expected both parties to give rubber-stamp approval to the compromise. While Sinn Fein lawmakers broadly backed the deal as expected, the Democratic Unionists reversed course in an air of confusion and secrecy.

On Tuesday, a well-placed politician said Robinson put the plan to a ballot — and 14 of the party’s 36 lawmakers rejected it. The politician, who says he voted against the deal, spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Democratic Unionist deputy leader Nigel Dodds decried the leaking of sensitive information — but like other party officials didn’t deny the vote setback on Tuesday.

Dodds, a hard-liner and Robinson’s most likely successor, stressed that no vote had been taken specifically on Robinson’s leadership and no lawmakers criticized Robinson for his personal life.

Last month, Northern Ireland was shocked when Robinson’s wife, Iris, admitted having a 2008 affair with a teenager 39 years her junior and lobbying businessmen to give him money to open a cafe.

Iris Robinson resigned last month as a lawmaker and was checked into a Belfast mental hospital. Police are investigating whether either Robinson broke any laws. Peter Robinson has denied any wrongdoing.

Robinson didn’t comment as he resumed talks Tuesday with British and Irish government officials and Sinn Fein at Hillsborough Castle southwest of Belfast, where the diplomatic marathon began nine days ago. Their talks typically have run past 3 a.m. each night.

Sinn Fein negotiator Gerry Kelly said his side was willing to “clarify” points but would not renegotiate the proposed agreement over the justice system.

In exchange for dropping their veto on the transfer of justice powers, Democratic Unionist negotiators are demanding greater rights for hard-line Protestant fraternal groups, whose drum-thumping marches stoke conflict with Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority every summer.

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