Crucial Anglo-Irish talks held to avert political crisis in Northern Ireland

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The British and Irish governments will hold talks in London today aimed at averting a crisis in the Northern Ireland political process.

Sinn Fein has accused the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of delaying the devolution of policing and justice powers from Westminster to the Stormont Assembly.

But while republicans have said that failure to secure a deal by Christmas will spark a crisis for the power-sharing government, the DUP has said it will not agree to a deal in the face of Sinn Fein demands, and has called for confidence building measures for unionists ahead of agreement.

The British government has already tabled a £1 billion package to fund the transfer of the powers and, together with the Irish government, has highlighted the many obstacles the peace process has overcome in the past.

The Irish premier, Taoiseach Brian Cowen, said: "There has been enormous progress in Northern Ireland in recent years, based on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement.

"It is vital to maintain that momentum so as to ensure that the institutions continue to work for the benefit of the entire community, especially at this very difficult time economically.

"The Prime Minister and I remain fully committed to working closely together, and with the parties, to overcome the remaining obstacles to the devolution of policing and justice and to continue to build a better future for all of the people of Northern Ireland."

But tension mounted over the weekend as Sinn Fein claimed the DUP is pursuing policies that will create a political train wreck in Northern Ireland.

On Saturday Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who accuses the DUP of breaking agreements on the devolution issue, repeated a warning that a deal must be secured by Christmas if crisis is to be avoided.

DUP leader Peter Robinson said he supports devolving law and order powers to the Assembly, but wants measures to boost public confidence in place first.

But yesterday Sinn Fein National Chairman Declan Kearney told a republican commemoration in Co Antrim: "In recent weeks all the evidence indicates the DUP have no intention to support the transfer of policing and justice powers.

"Absolutely nothing suggests this position will change.

"Their continued intransigence is a serious political mistake. It is a train wreck political strategy and political consequences will be inevitable.

"All of this demonstrates that the impasse over policing and justice is about something deeper than a transfer of powers.

"It's about whether political unionism is prepared to co-exist with republicans in equality and partnership."

Sinn Fein has said it entered government with the DUP in 2007, and changed republican policy to support the new police structures in Northern Ireland, on condition that political responsibility for policing was devolved from Westminster to the Assembly.

Republicans accuse the DUP of failing to support agreements on the timing of the move, claiming the DUP leadership is under pressure from hardliners.

The DUP has called on Government to agree to a series of moves before the party supports devolution of policing powers.

Mr Brown has already tabled a £1 billion package to finance the devolution process and offered a further £20m for former Royal Ulster Constabulary reservists who missed out on earlier compensation around the introduction of the new Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

The DUP also wants the scrapping of the Parades Commission which rules on controversial Orange Order marches, plus easier access to protection weapons for ex-security force members, and has called for a reprieve for the PSNI fulltime reserve which is to be scrapped.

Mr Robinson yesterday repeated his party's preference for scrapping the power-sharing voting structures at the heart of the Stormont administration.

"In essence our proposals include the abolition of community designation and its replacement by a 65% weighted majority voting," he said.

"This would ensure widespread support was required but would not allow any single party to have a veto on progress.

"It would encourage co-operation and compromise and end the potential of blackmail by stalemate."

Sinn Fein said the proposal amounted to a return to unionist majority rule.

Source: The Belfast Telegraph