Belfast: Northern Ireland`s leaders announced a hard-fought accord to transfer key remaining powers from London to Belfast on Friday, hailed as opening a "new chapter" in the long-troubled province.
Responsibility for police and justice in Northern Ireland will transfer to Belfast from April 12, they said, flanked by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Irish counterpart Brian Cowen who flew in for the occasion.
The Northern Ireland assembly will vote on the deal on March 9, but all lawmakers from both the Republican Sinn Fein and pro-London Democratic Unionists (DUP) backed the accord.
"We are closing the last chapter of a long and troubled story and we are opening a new chapter for Northern Ireland," said Brown.
"It`s another very good Friday," said Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, in a reference to the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement which ended three decades of violence in the British-ruled province.
The British government has agreed to provide an extra 800 million pounds (1.25 billion dollars, 920 million euros) to fund the transfer of law and order powers on April 12, he said.
"This agreement is the surest sign that we are not going back to the bad old days of the past," said DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson, whose party had resisted agreement with Sinn Fein.
Cowen added that the deal lays the foundations for a new future for Northern Ireland.
"That better future must be built on mutual respect for people of different traditions, equality and tolerance and respect for each other`s political aspirations and cultural expressions and inheritance," he said.
The British and Irish leaders rushed to Belfast after the DUP said late Thursday they had agreed to back a deal with Sinn Fein, their Catholic power-sharing partners.
The breakthrough came after more than a week of often strained negotiations to reach agreement on the policing and justice issue, the last main step in Northern Ireland`s devolution process.
It was feared that failure to reach a deal could lead to the collapse of the fragile power-sharing administration which emerged from the peace process.
Shaun Woodward, the British government`s minister in Northern Ireland, said the agreement "will be the last part of a jigsaw that enshrines the peace agreement itself".
The DUP had delayed an agreement, as hardliners within its ranks demanded special concessions on the policing of Protestant parades that pass near Catholic areas, which often spark confrontations.
Thursday`s breakthrough came a day after Robinson resumed his duties as first minister after being cleared over a sex and funding scandal, a development commentators said had boosted the slow-moving negotiations.
An internal investigation found Robinson had not breached official rules over allegations his wife Iris had secured a 50,000-pound (56,000-euro, 80,000-dollar) donation to help her young lover open a cafe.
More than 3,500 people were killed in Northern Ireland in a period known as "The Troubles", pitting communities supporting and opposing British rule of the province against each other in a bloody campaign of bombings and shootings.
Britain and Ireland helped broker the 1998 deal, which largely ended the fighting and led to the creation of the power-sharing executive.
But Northern Ireland is still dogged by sporadic violence. A policeman and two soldiers were shot dead last year in attacks blamed on dissident republicans and a policeman lost a leg in a car bomb last month.