Northern Ireland factions reach deal but hurdles remain

Government will take control of justice system

Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein’s president, read a copy of the agreement reached to save Northern Ireland’s Catholic-Protestant power-sharing government yesterday. Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein’s president, read a copy of the agreement reached to save Northern Ireland’s Catholic-Protestant power-sharing government yesterday. (Julien Behal/Getty Images)
By Shawn Pogatchnik
Associated Press / February 6, 2010

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HILLSBOROUGH, Northern Ireland - A breakthrough deal yesterday to save Northern Ireland’s Catholic-Protestant government has given a new lease on life to an awkward partnership of former foes that still must overcome many obstacles to survive.

The prime ministers of Britain and Ireland stood beside Irish Catholic leader Martin McGuinness and British Protestant leader Peter Robinson as they heralded a deal that was 2 1/2 years of argument - and 10 days and nights of exhausting negotiations - in the making.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain told both men they had completed an unlikely journey from warlords to practical politicians and in the process helped consign to history a four-decade conflict that left 3,700 dead.

“We are in a new, more mature age of politics in Northern Ireland. People have looked over the abyss and said there must be no return to the past,’’ Brown said at a news conference alongside Robinson, a onetime Protestant militant, and McGuinness, former commander of the outlawed Irish Republican Army.

McGuinness’s Sinn Fein party had threatened to withdraw from power-sharing, shattering the central institution of Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord, unless Robinson’s Democratic Unionists stopped blocking plans to create a new Justice Department in Belfast that would oversee law and order in this long-divided society.

Yesterday’s deal commits the Northern Ireland Assembly to elect a justice minister March 9 and Britain to transfer control of more than 20 criminal justice and law-enforcement agencies to Belfast on April 12.

The governments of Britain, Ireland, and the US long have pressed for this to happen as the last logical step in building a unity government that majority Protestants and minority Catholics can support. Protestants opposed the move, in part, because they loathe the notion of former IRA figures having any role in overseeing justice.

Britain eased the Protestants’ concerns with a staggering promise to give an extra $1.3 billion to cover the costs of establishing the Justice Department and a range of exceptional policing costs.

“In finalizing this deal, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness and their teams displayed the kind of leadership that the people of Northern Ireland deserve,’’ said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Yet Belfast political analysts agree that trust, the critical glue for real cross-community cooperation, remains in dangerously short supply. Yesterday’s deal sets a series of diplomatic and security hurdles that the Catholic-Protestant coalition must clear in the high-pressure weeks ahead to avoid another breakdown.

The Protestant side agreed to drop its veto on forging a Justice Department only on condition that Sinn Fein reopened negotiations on the most divisive tradition in Northern Ireland society - summertime marches by tens of thousands of hard-line Protestants in the Orange Order brotherhood.

The Democratic Unionists, whose leaders themselves are mostly Orangemen, want restrictions imposed by British authorities a decade ago to be lifted, so that Protestants can resume their tradition of parading past the most hard-line Irish nationalist parts of Northern Ireland. The practice triggered widespread rioting when last permitted in the mid-1990s. This year’s first restricted parades happen at Easter, the bulk in July.

“There is always in a peace deal like this an outstanding issue, something that is deferred until later. In this case it’s the parades issue,’’ said Belfast commentator and author Malachi O’Doherty.