Sinn Fein: Talks end with Northern Ireland’s Protestants but new deal possible on justice dept

By Shawn Pogatchnik, AP
Thursday, February 4, 2010

Sinn Fein: Belfast talks over, new pact possible

DUBLIN — The Irish Catholic party Sinn Fein said Thursday it has ended its involvement in marathon negotiations to save Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government — and it’s now up to the Protestant side to accept a compromise deal on the table.

Sinn Fein negotiator Gerry Kelly told reporters that the talks, begun Jan. 25 under the direction of the British and Irish governments, “have come to a conclusion. And our negotiating team believe we have the basis for moving the whole thing forward.”

Sinn Fein is threatening to withdraw from Northern Ireland’s government — collapsing the Catholic-Protestant coalition at the heart of the province’s 1998 peace accord — unless Protestant politicians stop blocking plans for a new Justice Department that would oversee the courts and police.

The major Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists, later said they weren’t done negotiating yet with Britain, even if Sinn Fein has dropped out.

“If one team leaves the pitch (playing field) before the referee’s whistle is blown, that is a matter for them,” Democratic Unionist negotiator Edwin Poots said. “We are still playing.”

Democratic Unionist leaders met British officials after dark to discuss key financial aspects of the potential deal. These include Britain’s promise to provide 800 million pounds ($1.3 billion) to the proposed Justice Department — and, in a surprise last-minute gambit, Protestant hopes of winning a British bailout for 10,000 investors in a collapsed Presbyterian bank in Belfast.

Afterward, Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson wouldn’t say whether he would convene the party’s lawmakers Friday to vote on the latest agreement text. A private Democratic Unionist vote Monday on an earlier draft drew strong opposition, spurring Robinson to seek more concessions from Britain and Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, writing in his blog Thursday, said his party had conceded nothing of substance to the Protestant side in recent days. Nonetheless, Adams said he was confident that Robinson would win sufficient party backing for compromise the second time around.

“I have no doubt that Peter Robinson will win the support of his group. Of course I could be wrong,” Adams wrote.

Democratic Unionist lawmakers are badly divided on whether to cut any new deal with Sinn Fein now, because a British general election is imminent — and they could lose Protestant votes to harder-line politicians if they offer too many concessions to Sinn Fein.

Northern Ireland power-sharing was supposed to consign to history a conflict that has claimed 3,700 lives since the late 1960s.

Peace has prevailed thanks to 1990s cease-fires and more recent disarmament by the province’s major outlawed groups. But the aim of uniting Northern Ireland’s 1.8 million residents through a unity government has proved a titanic struggle.

The IRA-linked Sinn Fein has demanded that Britain transfer its control over law-and-order issues to a new locally run Justice Department. The British, Irish and U.S. governments all back the idea, arguing this would boost Catholic support for the police and criminal justice system.

But the Democratic Unionists — loathe to let any former IRA commanders have a role in administering justice — have vetoed the move for the past two years.

The Democratic Unionists now demand, in exchange for dropping their veto, that Sinn Fein give hard-line Protestant groups greater leeway to march once again past Sinn Fein power bases. British authorities barred the traditional summertime parades from the most bitterly disputed streets after widespread rioting in the mid-1990s.

On the Net:

Gerry Adams’ blog,

will not be displayed