'Today our political process comes of age'
Devolution deal to yield benefits on both sides of border
Published 06/02/2010 | 05:00
The Government believes the agreement reached in Northern Ireland yesterday will result in greater co-operation on economic development and fighting crime.
Policing and justice powers will be transferred from London to Belfast in just two months' time, following a deal agreed by the DUP and Sinn Fein, after 130 hours of talks.
In what was viewed by the Government as a significant and symbolic gesture in response to the agreement, US President Barack Obama last night invited Taoiseach Brian Cowen to the White House for St Patrick's Day.
Mr Obama also extended the invitation to the North's First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
Mr McGuinness, meanwhile, said that compared to the Good Friday Agreement and St Andrews Agreement, "this could turn out to be maybe the most important agreement of all".
He added: "This might just be the day, this might just be the day, when the political process in the North came of age."
The earlier than expected devolution date of April 12 was accompanied by an agreement to look at new ways to referee the routes of contentious Orange Order parades.
Setting a date for devolution was vital to Sinn Fein, while the DUP wanted the existing Parades Commission system scrapped.
After 10 days of negotiations, Taoiseach Brian Cowen and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown joined Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness at Hillsborough Castle to sign-off on the agreement.
But the agreement was not greeted with universal approval as the UUP, the unionist party which negotiated the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, did not turn up for the announcement of the Hillsborough Agreement yesterday.
The Government expects the deal will enhance cross-border cooperation as it ensures the stability of the North's power-sharing government.
According to a government source, a justice minister operating in Belfast, solely dealing with Northern Ireland, rather than in Westminster dealing with the whole of Britain, will lead to greater co-operation, particularly in relation to cross-border crime and sex offenders.
On a practical level, justice legislation will be drawn up and passed in the North and security and policing policy will be decided there, rather than in London, making consultation and co-operation easier.
But there will also be an economic benefit, as another source said the agreement ensures that North-South co-operation across a range of departments will continue.
"That will benefit border communities, for example, and, in particular, the opening up of the north-west corridor," the source said.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern's spokesman said co-operation with Northern Ireland is already at a high level, but the Government sees devolution as presenting opportunities for improving this work.
"We believe it ultimately will lead to harmonisation of legislation where appropriate. Significant efforts are already under way in this regard in relation to the management of sex offenders," the spokesman said.
"The Government looks forward to increased co-operation to build on significant progress in cross-border justice issues."
Mr Cowen said the fair and balanced compromises were required in the agreement so that gaps could be bridged and different perspectives accommodated.
"The completion of the devolution of policing and justice in a matter of weeks is an essential step for peace, stability and security in Northern Ireland," the Taoiseach said.
"It consolidates the operation of devolved government and closes the circle in the transformation of policing structures in Northern Ireland."
Mr Cowen paid tribute to Northern Secretary Shaun Woodward and Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin. "I want to thank Micheal particularly and thank him for the political skills he's displayed in recent days," he said.
Mr Brown said what had been seen was a determination to resolve issues that had been "outstanding for too long".
"We have had decades of violence, we had years of talks, and we had weeks of stalemate, but the determination that's been shown in the last day or two in particular to try and get over these unresolved issues is one that I both applaud and commend to the people of Northern Ireland," he said.