North justice and policing powers to transfer in April


Taoiseach Brian Cowen and British prime minister Gordon Brown today published a deal to save Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government, confirming it will take on policing and justice powers from April 12th.

The deal between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, which includes new plans on overseeing parades, comes after nearly two weeks of round-the-clock negotiations and brings an end to fears that the power-sharing government could have collapsed on the policing, justice and parades stand-off.

A six-member working group is to be established to deal with Orange Order parades. Its work will begin immediately and will be completed within three weeks.

The deal envisages local people providing local solutions that respect the rights of those who parade as well as nationalist residents.

At a joint press conference outside Hillsborough Castle this morning, Mr Brown praised the settlement. "The achievements have been as great as they are inspirational," he said. “This moment and this agreement belongs to the people of Northern Ireland, all of the people, and now more than ever before so does their future.

“This is the last chapter of a long and troubled story and the beginning of a new chapter after decades of violence, years of talks, weeks of stalemate.”

He predicted that the settlement would help build a lasting peace and is an “essential step for peace stability and security in Northern Ireland”.

Mr Cowen said the deal laid the foundations for a new future. “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 agreement reached presents a real opportunity to renew the partnership which is the life blood of the devolved institutions. The people of Northern Ireland yearn for this constructive partnership to deliver tangible outcomes that improve their lives," the Taoiseach said.

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson welcomed the agreement. “There are some who will play politics with this agreement, but the real focus in the months to come must be on building an administration at Stormont that our whole community identifies with and supports.”

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said that as an Irish republican he wanted to see a united Ireland but recognised that unionists preferred to maintain links with Britain. He insisted both communities could and should live together in mutual respect. “We need to make life better for our children and grandchildren,” he said. “That is what this agreement must mean in practice.”

The SDLP's Mark Durkan, who steps down as party leader tomorrow and who has been closely involved in the talks, expressed hopes that the new deal would undermine violent groups. “We want to confound the sinister agenda of the so-called dissidents, so-called republicans,” he said. “We want to make sure devolution works a lot better that it has been doing.”

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said that despite public concern over the slow progress of the long-running negotiations, he urged people to study the agreement and see its potential. “It is another step on the journey, it is a very, very clear step and I suppose it depends on how society responds to what we are proposing.”

Progressive Unionist Party leader Dawn Purvis said the deal was what Northern Ireland’s people and political parties wanted. “It means we are not facing an election, which would have been absolutely disastrous.”

The Ulster Unionist Party refused to attend the launch of the agreement, but has said it will study its contents. During the negotiations the party consistently complained that it had been kept in the dark.

Alliance Leader David Ford, tipped to be appointed as justice minister after devolution, welcomed the decision.

But leader of the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice, Jim Allister asked why DUP members who rejected proposals at the start of the week had now come on board with the plan. “The deal hasn’t changed, only the snowmen of the DUP, who melted once the heat came on.”

The settlement will see the devolution of policing and justice powers from Westminster to the Assembly within weeks, satisfying a key Sinn Féin goal, while new arrangements for overseeing loyal order parades will meet the demands of unionists.

As well as setting a devolution date in April, the 21-page Hillsborough Agreement outlines the working of the new Justice Department.

Broken into five sections, the document also contains a range of measures aimed at resolving long-standing problems facing the powersharing government.

Key points include:

          * While the justice minister will have the same status as all other ministers in the powersharing cabinet, he or she will have the ability to take certain urgent decisions without recourse to executive colleagues.

          * A six member working group, appointed by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, will formulate a framework for new parade management procedures.

          * Its work will place emphasis on allowing local people to find solutions to local parading problems, with the rights of marchers and residents taken into account.

          * The working group will complete its work within three weeks. The Executive will then transfer responsibilities for parading legislation from Westminster and table a new bill based on the group’s proposals. The current Parades Commission will continue to adjudicate on contentious marches until the new framework comes into operation - expected at the end of 2010.

          * An executive working group will be set up to examine ways to improve the working of the powersharing cabinet. This will be co-chaired by Ulster Unionist leader and Employment Minister Sir Reg Empey and SDLP Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie.

          * DUP and Sinn Féin Junior Ministers Robin Newton and Gerry Kelly will chair another executive working group to progress issues the cabinet have so far failed to agree on. These include the stalled restructuring of the education system.

          * The First Minister and Deputy First Minister will conduct an exercise to address matters still outstanding from the 2006 St Andrews Agreement. These include legislative measures to protect the rights of Irish language speakers.

The talks which centred on Hillsborough Castle, Co Down, are the longest set of continuous negotiations held in the near 20-year peace process.

With Sinn Féin accusing the DUP of stalling on the transfer of policing powers for the last three years, it was feared that failure to find agreement could see the collapse of the power-sharing government led by the two parties.