“This is a good day for Northern Ireland”

The DUP and Sinn Fein have agreed a deal on the devolution of policing and justice, and parading in Northern Ireland following ten days of talks, and just over three years since the parties set a deadline of May 2008 for the devolution of policing powers in the St Andrew’s Agreement.

The sudden deal came as DUP Assembly members voted unanimously last night to support a deal put to them by their leader, Peter Robinson following what Brian Rowan of the Belfast Telegraph described as “stamina-sapping marathon negotiation.”

The agreement reached should see:

• The First and Deputy First Ministers tabling a resolution for a cross community vote on devolving policing and justice powers on 9th March.

• Following a successful vote, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness will work towards the full devolution of such powers by 12th April.

• In line with previous legislation passed, there will be a single Justice Department with a Minister sitting on the executive, who will be ratified by a vote in the Assembly.

• On the 8th February, The First and Deputy First Ministers will convene a meeting aimed at deciding who should fill the post of Justice Minister.

• A new, cross community working group will be established to look at the creation of an improved framework for controlling parades throughout Northern Ireland, with the First and Deputy Ministers to agree whatever the outcome is and legislate according.

Commenting on the agreement, DUP Leader and First Minister, Peter Robinson concluded:

“This is a good day for Northern Ireland. The agreement we have reached today secures the progress that we have made in recent years and keeps Northern Ireland moving forward to a better future.

“No future generation would forgive us for squandering the peace that has been so long fought for.  Today’s agreement is the surest sign that there will be no going back to the past.

“I believe that we have taken a considerable step to secure the prize of a stable and peaceful Northern Ireland. With this agreement I believe that we have laid the foundations for a better future for us all.”

Mr Robinson’s Sinn Fein Deputy, Martin McGuinnes struck an equally positive tone:

“This might just be the day when the political process in the North came of age. One thing is for sure: we are not going back to the past.”

Not all the parties however were quite so enthusiastic. For the UUP, its leader, Sir Reg Empey has made clear that he reserves judgement on the deal until he seeks certain clarifications with Gordon Brown, having expressed ongoing concerns that the UUP were only told once a deal had been reached. He continued:

“I think that indicates the distance that has been placed between ourselves and the rest of the process.”

In a joint statement, Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen concluded:

“It provides confidence that the Executive and Assembly will continue to discharge its responsibilities on behalf of all the people of Northern Ireland.

“And it sends a clear message to those few who still want to undermine peace that they cannot and will not succeed.

“The successful outcome of these negotiations is the result of the political parties in Northern Ireland demonstrating leadership, mutual respect and political will to act in the interests of the whole community.

“The two Governments fully support and stand over this agreement. We are committed to working, as appropriate, to ensure its faithful implementation.

“Today is a good day for the people of Northern Ireland and for the people of these islands.”

As a result of the deal, US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton has invited Northern Ireland’s political leaders to an investment conference in the US on how businesses across the Atlantic can support the progress that has been made today.

Having come this far and having achieved a truly historic deal, the Northern Ireland Government should now concentrate exclusively on the business of governing. Any return to such ways of making deals, with meetings through the night cannot happen again.

And having made such promises, it will be important to monitor developments. When the committee on parades makes its recommendations and the Assembly votes on a Justice Minister, the two events will have to receive the support of all parties for it to work and for a new Minister to have the confidence and authority to take on what will be a difficult brief.

With such caveats in mind, today is a good day for Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole. It will be a matter however of ensuring today’s deal is seen through completely and does not fall at the first hurdle – if that can be achieved then we might truly say that from today the troubles really are over.

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