Northern Ireland Assembly to vote on next power-sharing step; No. 2 Protestant party says ‘no’

By Shawn Pogatchnik, AP
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

NIreland Assembly to vote on next peacemaking step

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Northern Ireland lawmakers debated Tuesday whether to approve the next key step in making their Catholic-Protestant government work. The No. 2 Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, confirmed it will vote against the plans amid continuing tensions.

Analysts expect a sufficiently strong majority of lawmakers to approve the creation of a new Justice Department despite the Ulster Unionist opposition. The British, Irish and American governments long have pressed for former Belfast foes to take this step and cement their partnership as the U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace accord of 1998 intended.

Former President George W. Bush even made a rare venture into international politics Friday, telephoning David Cameron, leader of Britain’s opposition Conservative Party, to seek his help in persuading Ulster Unionist lawmakers to vote yes.

A “yes” vote would clear the way for Britain on April 12 to transfer control of the territory’s police and justice system to local hands for the first time since 1972, the worst year of Northern Ireland bloodshed.

The coalition’s two essential decision-makers — the British Protestants of the Democratic Unionist Party and the Irish Catholics of Sinn Fein — both back the plan. Moderate Catholics from the Social Democratic and Labour Party, or SDLP, also say they will vote in favor.

The Ulster Unionists insists members will vote against the measure to highlight wider problems in power-sharing. Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey said it makes no sense to give more power to local leaders who have spent years deadlocked in other areas, particularly education, already under their control.

The British, Irish and U.S. governments have spent weeks lobbying behind the scenes for a unanimous “yes” vote.

Cameron said he and Bush discussed the peacemaking importance of transferring the justice powers to local control but said he could not tell the Ulster Unionists how to vote. Cameron’s Conservatives — the favorites to win a British general election expected in May — have an electoral alliance with the Ulster Unionists.

“We’ve done everything we can to encourage all unionists to back the devolution of policing and justice. Regrettably, in the end, we cannot force people to vote a particular way,” Cameron said.

Many Protestants oppose giving any Justice Department influence to Sinn Fein, whose leaders previously backed the Irish Republican Army campaign of 1970-1997. The IRA killed nearly 300 police officers and several judges as part of its failed effort to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. Sinn Fein began supporting the police only in 2007.

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