Cowen, Brown bid to avert crisis in North
TAOISEACH Brian Cowen and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown were locked in crisis talks last night aimed at preventing the collapse of the North's troubled power-sharing government.
The leaders made a dramatic dash to Belfast after a last-ditch attempt by Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists to find agreement over the transfer of policing powers failed.
A lunchtime meeting between Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness and the DUP's Peter Robinson was so terse that it lasted just over half an hour. The row also intensified the prospect of Mr McGuinness resigning as deputy first minister.
His resignation would spark new elections to the North's Assembly -- after which Sinn Fein would probably emerge as the biggest party.
A deal involving the transfer of policing powers from London to Belfast by May 5 was regarded as a potential compromise last night. However, the issue of the handling of contentious parades remained a major sticking point.
The continued status of the Parades Commission, the watchdog on parades in the North, is a sensitive area dividing unionists and nationalists.
But the commission will probably remain for at least a year and be reviewed at a later date in any final deal.
The governments are now expected to apply pressure to Mr Robinson to concede ground on policing.
The stakes are high for Mr Robinson as the fallout from the affair involving his wife Iris could result in his party's support being damaged in the elections.
The result would most likely be Sinn Fein emerging as the largest party, giving Mr McGuinness first call on the post of first minister, and thereby prompting political turmoil and a collapse in co-operation between the parties.
Sinn Fein wants a date to be set for the devolution of policing and justice powers, while the DUP has pushed for the abolition of the Parades Commission.
But Sinn Fein claims the Orange Order, which has been closely involved in the DUP negotiations, wants to be able to march through Catholic areas without consulting with local residents.
The DUP, the largest unionist party, claims there is still not sufficient community confidence to justify the devolution of policing.
Sinn Fein says it backed new policing structures after the 2006 St Andrews Agreement which paved the way for power-sharing.
But the DUP had yet to agree to the pass over of law and order powers to the Stormont Executive -- a key element of the St Andrews deal.
Accusing the DUP of failing to fulfil its obligations on policing and justice, Mr McGuinness expressed his frustration at "three years waiting" for the main unionist party to agree to the devolution.
"Three years on -- three years on -- we are waiting for the DUP to deliver and honour their commitments, that all of us were supposed to have signed up to under the terms of an agreement that was presided over by the Irish government and the British government," he said.
Mr Cowen and Mr Brown met in Downing Street at lunchtime to discuss the impasse and immediately decided to travel together to Hillsborough Castle.
The arrival of the two leaders together to Belfast was seen as a significant gesture. Mr Cowen and Mr Brown flew separately from London, but both arrived at the talks together, signalling their unity on the negotiations.
Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin said the two governments were guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, so it was important they come in Belfast.
Staying away from the setting of a date for the devolution of policing before the talks got under way, Mr Martin said the two leaders were committed to sticking with the negotiations for as long as it takes.
Mr McGuinness held what was described as an "urgent and critical meeting" yesterday morning with the North's First Minister Peter Robinson. But the meeting lasted a little over half an hour.
The two Northern Ireland leaders briefed Mr Cowen and Mr Brown while they were still in London.
When little progress was emerging, the two prime ministers decided to come over to join in the negotiations.
The two leaders arrived at Hillsborough Castle in Co Down at 5pm escorted by a fleet of PSNI motorcycle outriders.
Sinn Fein and DUP negotiators arrived soon after the two leaders for the late-night talks.
Mr Cowen and Mr Brown insisted the impasse was "resolvable" before flying to Belfast for the make-or-break emergency talks.
The Taoiseach said the impromptu visit to Belfast, following a 90-minute meeting at 10 Downing Street, would help bring conclusion to the problems over transferring justice and police powers.
Mr Cowen declined to set a timeline or specified date for hammering out agreement with the rival parties.