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N. Ireland leaders try to save coalition

Marathon talks focusing on more localized control

By Shawn Pogatchnik
Associated Press / January 30, 2010

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DUBLIN - Rival leaders of Northern Ireland’s faltering Catholic-Protestant administration edged closer to a new power-sharing deal yesterday after a marathon diplomatic effort, but negotiators said the final hurdles might be too high to clear.

Northern Ireland’s peacemaking coalition - the central achievement of the province’s 1998 peace accord - has teetered on the brink of collapse since the major Irish Catholic party, Sinn Fein, warned it could end its awkward partnership with the major British Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists.

The Irish Republican Army-linked party, which has already delivered IRA disarmament and growing Catholic support for police, is demanding that the Protestant side stop blocking a plan to transfer control of Northern Ireland’s security and legal system from Britain to local hands.

“Have we given up on having an agreement? No. Have we more work to do? Yes,’’ Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said during a break in negotiations expected to run overnight and into today. “Are the parties doing the work? Yes. We just persist.’’ He declined to discuss the timing of a Sinn Fein walkout from power-sharing in the event of failure.

Prime Ministers Gordon Brown of Britain and Brian Cowen of Ireland - who also want justice powers transferred to the Belfast coalition - rushed to Northern Ireland after Sinn Fein and Democratic Unionist leaders warned them of an imminent collapse in their coalition.

Their high-profile effort ended Wednesday in frustrated exhaustion. The departing prime ministers urged both sides to narrow the ground between them by yesterday. Otherwise, they warned, the two governments would publish their own Anglo-Irish blueprint for saving power-sharing.

That deadline was quietly broken yesterday as the governments decided that, so long as the two local parties keep talking, it would be distracting to publish their own plans.

All sides did report making progress under the direction of the prime ministers’ key deputies, Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward and Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin.

In exchange for accepting the transfer of law-and-order powers, the Democratic Unionists are demanding that the Catholic side accept a major reversal on how Northern Ireland’s divisive Protestant parades are managed.

The summertime marches triggered chronic trouble with Catholics until the late 1990s, when a British government-organized panel began barring them from passing Sinn Fein power bases, where the worst rioting occurred. The Democratic Unionists want the panel disbanded and parade restrictions made a responsibility of the power-sharing government itself.