Deadline Friday

The parties in N. Ireland have until Friday to resolve their differences over the devolution of policing and justice, and the future of the parades commission.

Political parties in Northern Ireland have been given a deadline of Friday to resolve their differences over the devolution of policing and justice, and the future of the parades commission.

The deadline, set by Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Taoiseach Brian Cowen, came as they completed 48 hours of intense negotiations with Northern Ireland’s political leaders, with Brown taking the step of moving the weekly cabinet meeting and missing Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions.

Despite the marathon negotiation sessions, the two leaders left Hillsborough Castle on Wednesday afternoon without a deal .

In a Joint Statement following the talks, the UK and Irish leaders made clear their belief that there is a firm basis for:

• A cross community vote on devolving policing and justice powers in early March with a view to transferring powers at the beginning of May.

• Creating a new Justice Department, defining the relationship between the Justice Minister and Executive on a strong and stable footing.

• Benefiting from the offer from the UK Government of £800 million to finance a new Justice Department, available only if and when an agreement is reached.

• Enhancing the framework to more effectively deal with contentious parades, learning from successful local models, and enhance the framework governing parades and related public assemblies in a way that guarantees respect, dialogue, transparency and independence.

The leaders continued:

“The importance of these decisions for the future of Northern Ireland cannot be underestimated. With leadership and courage, they can be achieved.

“We are confident that this week’s talks leave Northern Ireland better able to overcome divisions, more determined to move forward together, with a greater understanding of what unites communities in Northern Ireland.”

However, the parties do not have long to solidify an agreement. If an agreement is not reached by Friday, then Gordon Brown has made clear that the UK and Irish Government would publish their own proposals.

Speaking after talks broke up, Deputy First Minister, and Sinn Fein’s Chief Negotiator, Martin McGuniess was decisively frosty, saying:

“The reality is that the failure to resolve those problems does not lie with Sinn Féin. We have come at this phase in a problem solving mode, we have invested much in the success of these institutions and so we want them to succeed.

“We have displayed extraordinary patience over the past 18 months. We sought to persuade the DUP to be partners on progress. In recent days the two governments have joined that effort.

“The decision by the DUP, at the behest of the Orange Order, to make the abolition of the Parades Commission a precondition for the transfer of powers flies in the face of that. It made reaching agreement extremely difficult and many are speculating that this was the intention.”

McGuniess went on to make clear is disappointment at the lack of an agreement, continuing:

“I have to say that, despite some progress being made on policing, we have not concluded a deal here today. I am deeply disappointed and I informed the plenary of that; Gerry Adams and myself, in a meeting with the Taoiseach and the British prime minister, did likewise.

“We now intend to study the governments statement, but one thing is certain, that citizens’ rights and entitlements cannot and will not be subject to a unionist veto or an Orange Order precondition.”

For the DUP, its leader, Peter Robinson, continued his party’s reluctance to be pushed into an early devolution of policing and justice powers, saying:

“The Democratic Unionist Party is committed to ensure that devolution works in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland and will not accept any second rate deal simply to get across the line to suit someone else’s deadline.”

David Ford, Leader of the Cross Community Alliance Party, tipped to take the Justice Minister’s post if and when an agreement is reached, struck a more positive note:

“I do not believe that it is impossible to resolve this situation if there is a willingness to engage instead of engaging in the blame game and the whinge game.”

So, having cleared their diaries for three days, where does the land lie now that both Brian Cowen and Gordon Brown have left Belfast?

Sinn Fein continue to blame the DUP for dragging its heals on policing and justice, with one Sinn Fein Minister, Conor Murphy calling for Hilary Clinton to step in to help negotiations. That being the same Hilary Clinton who in October described Northern Ireland as “an example to the world”.

• The DUP remain firm to their line that they will not be rushed into a decision on justice and policing by Sinn Fein, with DUP Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson having earlier in the week concluded that Martin McGuniess was throwing a “hissy fit”.

• The Ulster Unionist Party were reported to be preparing for snap elections to the Assembly whilst SDLP Leader, Mark Durkan spoke of his party being “betrayed”.

Jim Allistair of the hardline TUV party described the past few days as “a failed three-day mission by the prime minister”.

Could this be why the Belfast Telegraph described the situation as simply “Embarrassing”? Could this be why The Newsletter has spoken of a “funeral-like air” in Belfast? And is this what the Irish Independent means by the “same old story”?

As things stand, Northern Ireland Secretary, Shaun Woodward, and Irish Foreign Minister, Micheal Martin, are to stay at Hillsborough to try and thrash out a firm deal before Friday’s deadline. However, as the BBC’s Mark Simpson has concluded, whilst “a deal is not impossible the departure of the two prime ministers inevitably reduces the momentum of the talks“.

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