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British, Irish leaders fight to save N Ireland deal

Last Updated: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 - 16:23

Belfast: The British and Irish Prime Ministers were battling on Tuesday to bring Northern Ireland`s divided leaders to an agreement and avert the collapse of the province`s fragile administration.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Irish counterpart Brian Cowen jetted into Northern Ireland on Monday to lead talks with parties who share power in the province, as negotiations to finalise devolution stalled.

Politicians held crisis negotiations through the night at Hillsborough Castle on the vexed issue of policing, County Down, and voiced determination to resolve the crisis.

"What I fundamentally detect between the party leaders is a desire to make this work," said Shaun Woodward, the minister for Northern Ireland.

"Where there`s a will there will be a way and we stand ready to help however we can."

The transfer of police and justice powers from London to Northern Ireland`s power-sharing government is the final part of the devolution process.

London and Dublin helped broker the original power-sharing deal, part of a process that ended three decades of violence between Catholic republican opponents of British rule and Protestant unionists who supported it.

Negotiations between the parties sharing power -- the nationalist Catholic Sinn Fein and pro-British Democratic Unionists (DUP) -- have not succeeded in reaching an agreement.

Sinn Fein has warned that it could pull out of the government altogether unless progress is made, raising fears of increased political instability in the province.

Initial discussions between the former foes on Monday lasted just half an hour before Brown and Cowen jetted in for emergency talks.

Micheal Martin, Irish Foreign Minister, also expressed his determination to resolve the crisis on Monday.

"We are prepared to stay overnight to ensure that we can bring these talks to a conclusion and to get the key issues agreed upon," he said.

The sense of crisis has been heightened by a sex and funding scandal involving the wife of first minister Peter Robinson, who had an affair with a 19-year-old whom she helped financially, triggering a police investigation.

Robinson, the leader of the DUP, has stood aside temporarily as first minister vowing to clear his own name, but remains engaged in the devolution talks.

After Monday`s London meeting, Brown and Cowen expressed hope that a deal could be done.

"We believe it`s very important that we get a successful outcome to these discussions," Cowen told reporters before flying to Belfast.

"We believe that the problems that exist in devolving policing and justice are soluble problems," said Brown.

Sinn Fein called Monday`s emergency meeting in Belfast between its deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, the DUP`s Robinson, to address the lack of agreement.

Sinn Fein chief Gerry Adams has accused the DUP of derailing the talks by demanding concessions on policing controversial Protestant Orange Order parades. However, Robinson has insisted progress is being made.

The sectarian violence in Northern Ireland was largely ended by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and all the main paramilitary groups from both sides have now disarmed, although some dissident groups remain active.

Most recently, a policeman lost a leg in a car bomb attack earlier this month. Two men aged 34 and 33 were arrested over his attempted murder on Monday.

Bureau Report

First Published: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 - 16:23
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