Push to save unraveling N. Ireland coalition
British, Irish heads meet to resolve issues
HILLSBOROUGH, Northern Ireland - The British and Irish governments launched a mission yesterday to save Northern Ireland’s unraveling administration, a Catholic-Protestant coalition that was supposed to forge a lasting era of nonviolent compromise.
The British and Irish prime ministers, Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen, arrived together at Hillsborough Castle and vowed to do what they could to persuade local leaders not to pull the plug on power-sharing. Both leaders planned to talk late into the night and to maintain the diplomatic push today.
At stake is the core of the US-brokered Good Friday accord of 1998: a cross-community government for Northern Ireland drawn equally from the British Protestant majority and Irish Catholic minority. Such cooperation was designed to consign to history a conflict over the future of this long-disputed corner of the United Kingdom that left 3,600 dead.
The major Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein, is warning it will withdraw from the 2 1/2-year-old coalition - triggering its collapse - unless the Protestant side accepts the need to transfer control of Northern Ireland’s justice system from Britain to local hands.
Britain and Ireland both back the transfer. Sinn Fein formally accepted the authority of the Northern Ireland police as part of the deal, ending decades of support for Irish Republican Army attacks on the security forces.
But the Protestants of the Democratic Unionist Party are blocking the move until Sinn Fein meets other demands, including permission for Protestant fraternal groups to parade near Catholic districts, an annual sectarian tradition that caused widespread rioting until restricted in the late 1990s.
“We believe the outstanding issues are resolvable,’’ Cowen said. “We believe with goodwill, determination, and good faith on all sides that it should be possible to do that.’’
Cowen and Brown met first with the bickering Belfast chieftains of power-sharing, Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness, and other senior officials from both parties.
Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Shaun Woodward, and Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin were at their prime ministers’ sides last night’s talks.
Earlier yesterday, McGuinness and Robinson held their own face-to-face talks in Belfast that aides half-jokingly branded “High Noon.’’
McGuinness told reporters at Stormont Parliamentary Building in Belfast before meeting Robinson he was “still determined to make this place work.’’
Neither McGuinness nor Robinson spoke after their 35-minute meeting.
Despite the prime ministers’ intervention, a breakdown of power-sharing looks more likely than a breakthrough because of the bad blood between the two principal parties and the electoral test they both face.
The souring Sinn Fein-Democratic Unionist relationship also comes against a backdrop of continuing violence by IRA dissidents who oppose the outlawed group’s 1997 cease-fire and the peace accord it inspired.
Both Robinson and McGuinness appear reluctant to compromise too much in advance of the UK election, to be held in the next few months, in part because Northern Ireland voters in all recent elections have punished moderate candidates and rewarded the most stubborn negotiators.