Northern Ireland talks go down to wire on policing

Two prime ministers intervene to bridge the divide on devolution

Prime ministers Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen last night convened all-party talks at Hillsborough Castle near Belfast as part of their joint efforts to break the Northern Ireland political logjam.

They are believed to have presented a draft paper proposing the setting of an early deadline for devolving policing and justice powers to the Belfast Assembly. In addition new regulatory powers are suggested to deal with loyalist marches.

The paper was revealed at a plenary session attended by the five main Northern Ireland parties. The two premiers hope the proposals will bridge the gap between loyalists and republicans on policing and marching.

They headed negotiating teams from the British and Irish governments which spent the day locked in contacts with local parties, principally Peter Robinson's Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein. In recent weeks the parties have held lengthy direct talks but failed to reach agreement. The prospect of a collapse triggered the government intervention, with Mr Brown and Mr Cowen flying to Belfast.

Their lengthy negotiating sessions started on Monday, adjourned at 3am Tuesday, resumed six hours later and were looking to continue into last night. A government spokesman characterised the discussions as "hard going".

The timetable is designed to express the determination of both prime ministers to settle issues which have dragged on for months, poisoning the political atmosphere in Belfast.

The stated aim of all sides is to find a breakthrough to settle the vexed questions of how and when to transfer policing and justice powers from London to Belfast. This has recently become entwined with the equally vexed issue of how to regulate loyalist parades.

Yesterday British and Irish officials flitted between the two parties, testing ideas and probing for possible areas of compromise. A DUP minister said: "There are endless bits of paper."

The Northern Ireland Secretary, Sean Woodward, meanwhile described the talks as "a work in progress". Eventually the governments produced a draft document for the two sides to consider, and the two parties met face-to-face in late afternoon. Officials meanwhile kept in touch with smaller parties to keep them briefed.

In public, both Sinn Fein and the DUP played their cards close to their chests, with spokesmen making occasional appearances to make comments which tended to be non-confrontational, but noncommittal. With the two governments and the republicans keen to achieve the transfer of policing and justice as quickly as possible, it is likely that the centrepiece of any eventual deal will be the setting of a date for this to happen.

Achieving DUP consent for this will entail making some concessions to the party in terms of the technicalities of devolution and of parading regulation.

The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was in touch with Gordon Brown and others involved to stress American support for a breakthrough. The Prime Minister's spokeswoman said: "They discussed and took stock of the progress that's been made and the need to make an agreement."

She added: "The Prime Minister remains determined to make progress. Discussions with the parties continue to be frank, but there is a spirit of openness and a shared sense of the importance of working towards an agreement."

The Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheal Martin, described the engagement between the parties as "constructive and positive", adding: "The governments are in listening mode, taking on board suggestions and ideas, as well as feedback on issues raised yesterday and this morning. So far, we're working issue-by-issue, party-by-party."

Mr Robinson said he wanted to see a positive outcome, declaring: "We are up for the job, we are resolving the outstanding issues. Policing and justice is a life-or-death issue, it is a sensitive issue, it is something that touches every member of our community."

The Sinn Fein minister Conor Murphy said republicans needed to secure a date for the transfer of policing and justice powers. He added: "We have delivered on our commitments."

Battling for Ulster's thin blue line

Q. Is the Irish peace process falling apart?

A. In terms of war and peace, no. Dissident republican groups commit occasional violent acts, but the major republican and loyalist groups have disarmed. Loyalists, led by the Democratic Unionist Party, are in government alongside Sinn Fein but there's little or no trust between them.

Q. What has brought Gordon Brown to Belfast, and what approach is he taking?

A. London, Dublin and Sinn Fein have been pressing for a devolution of policing and justice powers, but the Democratic Unionists say Protestants lack confidence in the system. Policing has become a battlefield for Sinn Fein and the loyalists. When the DUP said the transfer of policing would be expensive, Gordon Brown came up with a package of £800m to cover the costs. That carrot removed the cash issue. The stick is the prospect of Assembly elections, which for different reasons neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein want.

Q. Why are the DUP so keen to avoid an Assembly election?

A. In a word: Iris. The saga of Peter Robinson's wayward wife is reckoned to have alienated many DUP voters. The DUP fears its supporters would desert it in droves. Sinn Fein wants the transfer of policing powers, but would prefer to avoid the uncertainty of an election.

Q. What happens if these talks break down?

A. An election may not necessarily happen, since both London and Dublin would regard it as increasing the present instability. More rounds of talks would probably follow, perhaps accompanied by a suspension of the Assembly.

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