Members of the Democratic Unionist Party last night backed a deal with Sinn Fein that saves the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland following a marathon 10-day series of talks at Hillsborough Castle in County Down.
The final pieces of the jigsaw were slotted into place close to midnight after DUP leader Peter Robinson spent the day successfully persuading doubters within his party to accept arrangements he had worked out with the republicans, London and Dublin.
DUP members of the Northern Ireland Assembly gathered there in the hours before midnight to register their opinions on the deal, which centres on the devolution of policing and the regulation of contentious loyalist parades.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Taoiseach Brian Cowen are now expected to travel to Belfast this morning to put their seal on the deal.
Flanked by DUP Enterprise minister Arlene Foster and Finance minister Sammy Wilson, Mr Robinson said all members of his party were behind the proposals. Emerging from a two-hour meeting, he said: “The assembly group asked questions and considered the matter and have unanimously supported the way forward.
Everyone present believes this is consistent with our election manifesto and pledges that we have made to the people.
We look forward to going to Hillsborough when the document should be published.”
Closure had been thought imminent earlier in the week after negotiators sketched out new arrangements. But a shock came when 14 of the DUP’s 36 Assembly members indicated that they were unhappy with the package presented to them by Mr Robinson.
This unexpectedly high number of sceptics was said to include senior DUP figures such as Nigel Dodds and Gregory Campbell. Both are Westminster MPs and Mr Dodds is deputy leader of the party, although following the latest round of talks last night all the DUP’s Assembly members got behind the deal.
Following the initial rejection Sinn Fein had made it clear that it refused to enter into a further round of negotiations.
Yesterday afternoon the party announced: “The negotiations have come to a conclusion. We believe that it is a positive conclusion and we believe that it isthebasis on which to move forward.”
Mr Robinson had pressed the British Government to make concessions on Presbyterian Mutual Society, which went into administration in October 2008. Almost 10,000 people who saved with it feared they had lost their savings, and the DUP had for months been pressing for official aid to the savers involved. It was thought the Government may have regarded movement on the issue as an acceptable price to pay if it helped clinch awider political accord, although it was not clear last night whether any agreement on the company had been signed.
The deal’s centrepiece was the agreement that the Belfast Assembly will assume powers over policing and justice.
This can be expected to take place by mid-April: a later date had been agreed, but this has now been brought forward to distance it from the expected general election in early May.