The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein were today on the brink of an historic deal with the Government which could see Stormont take over the running of police, prisons and the courts probably early next year.
A £600m-plus package to underpin the transfer of law-and-order functions from Westminster was hammered out in outline form last night after months of complex negotiations, sharply intensified over recent weeks.
Details of the package remain under wraps, at least until an official letter from Prime Minister Gordon Brown next week.
However, it is believed to include more than £350m to cover compensation for hearing loss cases among police officers, around £100m for pensions and £50m to cover back pay — all issues arising from the Direct Rule period before devolved government returned almost two-and-a-half years ago.
Cash to cover legal aid in the province — estimated at between £40-50m — and other “inescapable” financial pressures, which the DUP put a £35m price tag on against Government estimates closer to £17m — are also believed to have been dealt with.
But there were also questions today over possible concessions granted to both parties on issues outside the financing deal.
Sinn Fein will soon go out to sell the package, while the DUP will begin both internal and external consultations — with key figures in the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), court service and prisons also being asked to give their verdicts.
The outline agreement will, however, allow US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — due to visit Northern Ireland on Monday — to argue the final building blocks from the foundation of the Good Friday Agreement 10 years ago are in place.
Mrs Clinton, whose husband Bill as President played a key role in the closing stages of the Agreement in 1998, is to visit the Assembly where she will laud the efforts of the two parties to ‘complete the devolution project’ with the handover of police and justice responsibilities.
Tense months of complex negotiations reached crunch point in Downing Street late last night, after three meetings between First Minister Peter Robinson, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Mr Brown in the last week alone. Four hours of talks in Downing Street ended shortly before midnight after which the Stormont ‘top two’ emerged and spoke separately.
First Minister Peter Robinson struck a cautious tone, insisting more work remained to be done.
“We are not going to be pushed or bullied or bribed,” he said.
“I’ve been in many sets of negotiations and we will want to be sure that the issues that we have discussed are interpreted and expressed in the communication in the way that we would expect, and then colleagues are going to have to make a judgement based on the proposition.”
But a more ebullient Mr McGuinness said a good night’s work had been done and they were “on the cusp” of agreement.
“We’ve effectively concluded our discussions on the funding issues in relation to the transfer of power in policing and justice,” he said.
Mr Brown is now to send a formal letter to Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness, probably on Monday, after which crucial decisions will have to be made.
Mr Robinson will then consult with DUP officers and Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) before meeting other party leaders and key stakeholders.
Hardline Traditional Unionist voice leader Jim Allister today warned that the combination of savage cuts after the general election and an upsurge in dissident republican terrorism will leave frontline services starved of funds to pay for policing and justice.
“Devolving policing and justice is not a mere matter of money, it is about the much deeper issue of the folly of gifting such vital and sensitive issues to an Executive and Assembly where IRA/Sinn Fein — the party which still justifies their IRA’s murder of policemen and judges — holds the power of veto,” he said.
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