Northern Ireland policing and justice talks “at a crucial point”

The latest developments from Northern Ireland following the meetings between the Prime Minister, First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness has said discussions over the devolution of policing and justice to Stormont are at “a crucial point”. His comments came after a second day of talks in Downing Street on the thorny issues of when and how to devolve policing and justice powers to the province, between Mr McGuinness, the Prime Minister and the Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson.

Speaking at Labour’s annual conference in Brighton last week, Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward described the devolution of Policing and Justice as “the last remaining part of the jigsaw to be put in place.”

The BBC reports that at the talks, Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson handed Gordon Brown a dossier outlining his demands before allowing the devolution of justice powers. It included more money for policing from Westminster, retention of the police reserve, and a freeing up of the supply of weapons for former members of the security force for personal protection.

It is further understood that Mr Robinson has asked for the full implementation of Lord Ashdown’s recommendation that the Parades Commission should be abolished.

Sinn Fein dismissed the dossier as a DUP “wish list”, with one of its Assembly members, John O’Dowd, concluding that, “These side issues have no place in this negotiation.” The sideswipes have highlighted the sharp differences that have emerged between Mr Robinson and Mr McGuiness, causing a rapid deterioration in the relationship between the province’s most senior political figures.

Speaking to the BBC, the DUP leader ruled out any transfer of justice powers before Christmas, on the basis that the UK Treasury should pay the £600 million for it to go ahead. He continued by reiterating that he would not allow the devolution of policing and justice powers to take place until the unionist community had confidence in the arrangements.

In response, Mr McGuiness – whose Sinn Fein party is eager to see powers devolved in this area as soon as possible – accused the First Minister of dragging his feet in order to appease hard-line Unionists. This in turn led Mr Robinson to accuse his Deputy of launching a “nasty one-sided attack”.

The spat promoted SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, to say: “These Peter and Martin soap opera episodes must end before they end up like Peter and Katie.” Meanwhile, former First Minister David Trimble called on all sides to “get a firm grip on power and get on with it”.

Elsewhere, David Cameron has told The Times that he cannot commit to maintaining Labour’s spending commitment in Northern Ireland. He said:

“We want it to happen, and generally speaking commitments that are made we will try and agree to, but I can’t give a blank cheque.”

With reports in the Belfast Telegraph suggesting that Sinn Fein could force early Assembly elections if the impasse continues, all sides will be under pressure to reach a solution when talks reconvene at Downing Street next Tuesday. A failure to agree could precipitate yet another political crisis in Northern Ireland’s long and troubled road to normality.

And in a further sign of instability, the leaders of the relatively new “Traditional Unionist Voice” party, Jim Allistair has been warned by the police of death threats against him by dissident Republicans. The Belfast Telegraph has also reported that security forces across Northern Ireland have been put on heightened alert following intelligence reports of an imminent attack on an army bases by republican dissidents.

With more talks planned over the next few days, many across Northern Ireland and further afield will hope they can build on the “progress” eluded to by the Prime Minister’s official spokesman.

The frantic activity takes place as US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, prepares to visit Belfast to discuss the job opportunities and investment that America can bring to Northern Ireland once the justice and policing powers are devolved. Left Foot Forward will report on her visit next week.

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