Belfast’s old foes to mark historic deal with trip to the White House

Barack Obama last night set the American presidential seal of approval on Northern Ireland's political breakthrough by commending those involved and inviting them to the White House next month.

His praise for what he termed "an important step on the pathway to greater peace and prosperity for all communities on the island" came after days and nights of tortuous negotiations finally met with success.

President Obama will meet First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in Washington on St Patrick's Day, as well as Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen. Mr Cowen and Gordon Brown travelled to Belfast yesterday with Mr Brown declaring the deal would close "the last chapter of a long and troubled story".

The two parties which had been at odds for many months, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, both signalled their satisfaction with an intricately composed 21-page document. Thrashed out during exhaustingly long sessions, it lays down that powers over policing and justice are to be transferred from London to Belfast on 12 April. This is in line with the goals of Sinn Fein, London and Dublin.

At the same time, DUP concerns on Protestant marching rights have been addressed, with provisions for consultations designed to lead to new legislation. The Orange Order, which stages several thousand parades annually, welcomed the provisions as a positive step forward.

The document contains various timetables aimed at ensuring progress on these issues. A policing and justice ministry is to be established to join existing Assembly departments which administer areas such as education and agriculture. Since it has long been agreed that the first justice minister should not be a member of Sinn Fein or the DUP, he or she is expected to come from one of the Assembly's smaller and more centrist parties.

Supporters of the peace process, and of the Assembly which is its centrepiece, were mightily relieved by the success of the negotiation, which went through many rocky moments. One of the most alarming came on Monday night when the DUP leader, Peter Robinson, asked his 36-strong Assembly party to approve a draft document, only to find that 14 were unhappy with provisions which had been approved by London, Dublin and Sinn Fein.

Discussions lasted several days but did not produce substantial changes. At the same time, Mr Robinson worked on the sceptics in the DUP ranks to persuade them that it was the best deal available. A second meeting of Assembly members late on Thursday agreed unanimously to support the deal. This turnaround is seen as a striking tactical achievement by Mr Robinson, who just weeks ago seemed destined to be deposed following scandals surrounding his wife, Iris. Several hardline DUP figures had repeatedly vowed they would not accept devolved policing.

Jim Allister, a hardline loyalist critic, declared: "The deal the DUP so meekly accepted is the same deal they rejected on Monday. The deal hasn't changed, only the snowmen of the DUP who melted once the heat came on."

Mr Robinson delivered a ringing endorsement of the accord, saying: "No future generation would forgive us for squandering the peace that has been so long fought for. No sane person wants to go back to the carnage, violence and instability that we have endured over recent generations." The Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, added: "There's a wonderful chance now in a new spirit for us all to go forward."

The deal was welcomed by Matt Baggott, Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Conservative leader, David Cameron, and the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. But the Ulster Unionists, sister-party of the Tories in Northern Ireland, said they were reserving their position on the deal, complaining that they had not been consulted on its contents.