HILLSBOROUGH, Northern Ireland – A breakthrough deal Friday to save Northern Ireland’s Catholic-Protestant government has given a new lease of life to an awkward partnership of former foes that still must overcome many obstacles to survive.
The prime ministers of Britain and Ireland stood beside Irish Catholic leader Martin McGuinness and British Protestant leader Peter Robinson as they heralded a deal that was 2 1/2 years of argument – and 10 days and nights of exhausting negotiations – in the making.
McGuinness’ Sinn Fein party had threatened to withdraw from power-sharing – shattering the central institution of Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord – unless Robinson’s Democratic Unionists stopped blocking plans to create a new Justice Department in Belfast that would oversee law and order in this long-divided society.
Friday’s deal commits the Northern Ireland Assembly to elect a justice minister March 9 and Britain to transfer control of more than 20 criminal justice and law-enforcement agencies to Belfast on April 12.
The Protestant side agreed to drop its veto on forging a Justice Department only on condition that Sinn Fein reopened negotiations on the most divisive tradition in Northern Ireland society – summertime marches by tens of thousands of hard-line Protestants.
The Democratic Unionists want restrictions imposed by British authorities a decade ago to be lifted, so that Protestants can resume their tradition of parading past the most hard-line Irish nationalist parts of Northern Ireland. The practice triggered widespread rioting when last permitted in the mid-1990s.
Friday’s agreement specifies, as its first act, that the Northern Ireland Assembly should create an all-party committee that will review current systems for managing, mediating and restricting Protestant parades.
Catholic politicians warned that, if that committee cannot reach an agreement that addresses Protestant demands for greater marching freedoms this summer, the Democratic Unionists could withhold essential support for electing a justice minister – throwing the coalition back into the crisis it has just escaped.