British, Irish premiers leave Northern Ireland; no justice deal yet reached

Thursday, January 28, 2010

File photo of Hillsborough Castle, where the talks are taking place.
Image: TSP.

United Kingdom prime minister Gordon Brown and Irish premier Brian Cowen have left Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland, where they had been attending talks on justice and the recent Northern Ireland crisis regarding the devolution of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast. No agreement has yet been reached, and the main parties have been given two more days to attempt to broker a deal.

Martin McGuinness, the deputy first minister and member of the republican party Sinn Féin, was "deeply disappointed" by the lack of an agreement on the possible devolution of Northern Ireland's policing and justice powers from Westminster, London to Stormont, Belfast. Brown, however, believes the discussions are salvageable. He said that there is the "prospect of a reasonable agreement" being reached within the next two days, and that they "have the pathway to an agreement" in place. The British unionist Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin—Northern Ireland's two largest parties—have been arguing over the issue for some time.

On Monday, Brown and Cowen travelled to Hillsborough Castle to meet with delegates of Northern Ireland's major parties in an attempt to forge an agreement, and—before he left—Brown gave the remaining delegates 48 hours to find a mutually beneficial solution. He said that the governments of the UK and Ireland will publish their plans if no such agreement is reached. He also said that the devolution could occur "around the beginning of May" this year. Sinn Féin want the devolution to occur as soon as possible, but the DUP argues that "community confidence" is required before the process, which would give Northern Ireland its first justice minister, can begin.

We have not concluded a deal today and I am deeply disappointed about that

—Martin McGuinness

McGuinness said, "We have not concluded a deal today and I am deeply disappointed about that. We intend to study the governments' statement." He said that his party would refuse to give its support to anything that subjected "citizens' rights" to a "unionist veto". Peter Robinson, the leader of the DUP who has been forced to temporarily stand aside as first minister due to a sexual and financial scandal involving his wife, said that his party would not accept a "second-rate deal" in order to keep to "someone else's time limit". He is also reported as saying, "We are not prepared to buy a pig in a poke. We will do what is right for our community." Sinn Féin has accused the DUP of stalling for time, though Robinson denied this, saying that "[t]he party has always wanted to see the devolution of policing and justice and has always wanted it to happen without undue delay but it has to happen on a basis that we believe is sustainable".

We are not prepared to buy a pig in a poke. We will do what is right for our community

—Peter Robinson

It is thought that a failure to come to an agreement could trigger a re-election in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and damage the delicate peace process, which began with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Margaret O'Callaghan, of Queen's University Belfast said, "It's difficult to overestimate just how bad relations are between them. They really do not get on. On the other hand people have too much invested in this to allow it to collapse."