UUP to vote against power-sharing deal

The Ulster Unionist Party will reject the recent deal brokered to stabilise Northern Ireland's power-sharing government in today's crunch Assembly vote, it confirmed last night.

Despite pressure from the Government, from other Stormont politicians, plus past and present US administrations, Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey said his party's executive endorsed a decision to vote against the proposals, claiming the power-sharing government is not ready to take on the new powers.

Despite reports of a late intervention by former US President George Bush, who called David Cameron to ask him to use his influence to

press his unionist partners to endorse the measures, tonight's decision will mean that it will now fall to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to push through the measures by voting alongside Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein and the DUP had both hoped for a unanimous vote.

"We are prepared to go forward and look to the future," said Sir Reg, "but not under the cosh of all this blackmail and bullying."

His comments came after a dramatic day at Stormont where two separate government opinion polls were unveiled to show major public support for the devolution of the policing powers.

Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward said a 'no vote' by the UUP would fail to block the measures, but would send a divisive signal that would provide succour to violent dissident groups opposed to the peace process.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also reportedly phoned the UUP leadership urging their support.

The Hillsborough deal, signed after nearly two weeks of constant talks, promised delivery of the republican demand for the devolution of policing and justice powers, plus the unionist call for the creation of new systems to oversee loyal order parades.

Sinn Fein attacked the Ulster Unionists and it was claimed a meeting between the two parties yesterday broke down after just three minutes.

Sinn Fein junior minister Gerry Kelly said: "I have to say I have been bemused at the position of the UUP, who seem to be playing crude politics with, I think, everybody's future.

"I think the overwhelming majority of people want this (devolution of the powers) to happen."

DUP leader Peter Robinson repeated today that he believed the Hillsborough agreement represented a good deal for unionism.

Alliance leader David Ford called on the Conservative Party to end its link with the UUP if they fail to back the deal.

Mr Ford said: "If the UUP vote no on the agreement then the Tories face no option but to end the link with them to save what credibility they have left on Northern Ireland.

"If the Tories allow this sham marriage to continue after a no vote, they will demonstrate a total lack of principle and leadership."

And in a separate development, the Government tonight repeated its threat to withdraw the £800million package it has tabled to fund devolution, if the proposals are not passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly as agreed.

The additional funds for the new Department of Justice will only be available, they confirmed, on the completion of devolution with the transfer of policing and justice powers from Westminster to Stormont.

A statement issued by the Ulster Unionist party tonight condemned the interventions by the Secretary of state Shaun Woodward and the criticisms of Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

It added: "The Ulster Unionist Party wants to see these powers exercised by a local minister accountable to local representatives. However the conditions must be right - we must show that the Assembly can handle the power that it has before it takes on even more contentious powers."