Robinson affair may hasten policing deal

Chastened DUP ready to talk over ceding control of justice to Belfast

Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist party were yesterday locked in intensive talks aimed at salvaging the Northern Ireland political settlement in the wake of the Iris Robinson affair.

Although the scandal has produced many days of instability, it appears to have galvanised the DUP in particular toward resolving the months-long impasse surrounding the devolution of policing powers.

Brian Cowen, the Taoiseach, flew to London for talks with Gordon Brown, and the two prime ministers later said that agreement between the parties was "both realistic and achievable".

Since most other comments on the discussions were at least mildly optimistic, hopes have grown that the deadlock could be broken and relations improved. Such an outcome would be paradoxical, since any progress would be largely due to the scandal surrounding Iris Robinson, who admitted having an affair with a teenager and did not declare large amounts of money which she solicited from building developers.

Her husband, Peter, who has stepped aside for some weeks from his post of First Minister, was last night involved in the negotiations, as was Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams.

The two prime ministers shrugged off questions about the Iris Robinson affair, concentrating on the long sought transfer of policing from London to Belfast. The two have spent many months trying to effect the move.

Mr Brown told a news conference: "Some people have questioned whether the recent turbulence in the politics of Northern Ireland will slow progress on the issues. I want to say that both our governments remain very closely involved with the Northern Ireland parties, and have been over the last week in particular.

"I am pleased that the parties themselves are now talking in detail. We know that these discussions are never easy. Years of hard talks in Northern Ireland have taught us that."

Mr Brown repeated that London stood ready, in the event of an agreement, to provide some £800m to meet the costs of a transfer, which would involve establishing a new Department of Justice in Belfast.

Mr Cowen said serious negotiations were continuing, adding that he believed the outstanding issues were ready for agreement and resolution. Mr Adams commented that negotiations were "at a serious, focused and sensitive point".

Although Mr Brown's financial assurances were announced some time ago, the DUP has maintained that the time was not yet right for the devolution of policing, insisting that various confidence-building measures were also required.

But the party is now in a much-weakened state in the wake of the Robinson revelations, with Mr Robinson's survival still hanging in the balance. The confidence measures now appear to have been narrowed down to the regulation of loyalist parades.

With the DUP asking for some concessions on this issue, Sinn Fein is likely to be willing to offer some limited face-saving moves. The moderate nationalist politician Mark Durkan reflected the DUP's reduced clout when he said it seemed that "a humbler DUP" had found a clearer perspective on policing devolution.

Mrs Robinson has resigned from her positions as a Westminster MP, member of the Belfast Assembly and councillor. The council she sat on has announced an inquiry into her actions.