Time to finish NI business, urges Hillary Clinton

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The Independent Online

The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday told the assembled politicians of Belfast, diplomatically but unmistakeably, that the time has come to complete the unfinished business of devolution.

In an address to the Northern Ireland Assembly she complimented local representatives on how far they had come. But in meetings with their leaders and in other public comments she specifically urged them to clinch the deal on transferring policing and security powers.

She held important meetings with First Minister Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionists and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein.

She told the Assembly that it would make the decision on devolution, but pointedly added: "The step of devolution for policing and justice is an absolutely essential milestone."

The US, she said, would not "meddle" in the process. But one of the messages of her one-day visit was that policing was essential for increased stability, and that stability would make US investment and job creation more likely.

Her pressure, together with that emanating from both London and Dublin, is directly aimed at Mr Robinson and his party, whose misgivings have caused many months of delay in putting policing in place.

Not all in the DUP are keen on speedy movement, harbouring as they do many instinctive reservations about the Assembly and its system which locks them into government with Sinn Fein.

This was on view yesterday when, as the Assembly gave Mrs Clinton a standing ovation, two Democratic Unionist members, Gregory Campbell and the Rev William McCrea, headed for the doors of the chamber. The two are regarded as being among the hardline sceptics who are known as "the Twelve Apostles."

Sinn Fein member Daithi McKay called on the pair to apologise for "publicly snubbing the US Secretary of State."

Mr Campbell, a Westminster MP, denied he had staged a walkout, advancing the explanation that "we all have important business to do, particularly the economic regeneration of Northern Ireland."

The episode has tended to confirm the widespread suspicion that Mr Robinson's delaying tactics have not entirely been motivated by a desire to ensure that the arrival of policing powers will not bring with them additional costs of up to half a billion pounds.

Gordon Brown, who last week was involved in hours of financial negotiations with both Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness, yesterday sent them details of an offer dealing with the monetary aspects. The two leaders appear pleased with this.

In this instance Sinn Fein is - for once - on the side of the angels, in that republicans are at one with the various governments in wanting a quick end to the policing dispute. They are also fully in favour of maximum US involvement in the peace process.

Some Unionists by contrast have misgivings about what they would view as too much American intervention, harbouring lingering doubts that Washington might lean too much towards republican interests.

Mrs Clinton's pledge not to "meddle" may have been her attempt to allay such fears. As an old Northern Ireland hand - she first visited Belfast with her husband fourteen years ago - she would know well that such assurances may be necessary.

Mr Robinson reflected such concerns when he declared last week: "We are not going to be pushed or bullied or bribed."

Mrs Clinton told the Assembly: "The Obama administration and the United States is committed to helping you on your journey. But when it comes to the important issue of the devolution of policing and justice, that is a decision for this Assembly to take."

Mrs Clinton was accompanied on the trip by a number of American business figures and by the administration's economic envoy to Northern Ireland, Declan Kelly.

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