After years of fraught relationships, months of negotiating and 10 days of intense talks, Northern Ireland’s two opposing political parties finally reached agreement over the devolution of policing and justice powers, hailed as the beginning of a new era for the province.
US President Barack Obama joined premiers Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen in proclaiming the significance of the deal.
But as the DUP and Sinn Fein stood outside Hillsborough Castle yesterday mystery surrounded the location and stance of key DUP players including deputy party leader Nigel Dodds, chief whip Lord Morrow and MP Gregory Campbell.
The trio’s absence at Hillsborough and subsequent silence on the deal struck over the steps to the devolution of policing and justice did not go unnoticed.
TUV leader Jim Allister said: “The people of Northern Ireland deserve to know where exactly the DUP chief whip and party chairman, Lord Morrow, stands in relation to the Hillsborough Agreement. At the beginning of last month he confidently declared: ‘There will be no devolution of policing and justice during the lifetime of this Assembly it is not going to happen and that is it. It will not happen before the General Election or the Assembly election. It is not an issue’.
“Yet now his party has struck a deal with Sinn Fein/IRA which will deliver their demand for devolution of policing and justice in just a few short weeks. So what is Lord Morrow’s position?
“If there are those in the DUP who are troubled — as they ought to be — then now is the time for them to find courage.”
It has been no secret that a delay in finalising the agreement was the result of an initial failure within the DUP to reach consensus over the package.
When Gregory Campbell was asked last night about his absence at Hillsborough, he would only say: “I will be making no comment whatsoever until the full detail of the package agreed is in the public domain.”
The Belfast Telegraph has tried contacting Lord Morrow at least nine times this week but he returned none of our calls. Nigel Dodds was also contacted several times last night but to no avail.
A spokesman for the DUP downplayed the absence of MPs Gregory Campbell and Nigel Dodds at yesterday’s historic Press conference and dismissed any suggestion of a rift within the party.
“The DUP is 100% united. The DUP was represented at Hillsborough by the ministerial team, all our ministers were there,” he said.
“In terms of the decision that was made on the package put forward by the negotiating team which included Gregory Campbell and Nigel Dodds, that deal was endorsed by the party unanimously. That means everybody has agreed to it.”
However, TUV leader claimed: “This is a bad and humiliating deal for unionism. The DUP and particularly its ‘strongmen’ who melted away as ‘snowmen’, have failed Ulster.”
There were also rumblings of discontent from the Ulster Unionist Party who snubbed the unveiling of the deal at Hillsborough Castle.
Last night Ulster Unionist Assembly Member Fred Cobain said his party would not be supporting a “gerrymander” which saw Alliance leader David Ford take the Justice Minister's post while party leader Sir Reg said he was not prepared to be “a performing poodle”.
But overall yesterday’s deal has been heralded a great day for Northern Ireland.
US President Barack Obama last night said Northern Ireland's power-sharing deal was an important step on the path to greater peace and prosperity.
“The President appreciates the personal contributions and steadfast support of the Taoiseach and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown in support of the historic agreement achieved by Northern Ireland leaders, which is an important step on the pathway to greater peace and prosperity for all communities on the island,” a White House statement said.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: “The achievements have been as great as they are inspirational. This moment and this agreement belongs to the people of Northern Ireland, all of the people, and now more than ever before, so does their future.”
He added: “This is the last chapter of a long and troubled story and the beginning of a new chapter after decades of violence, years of talks, weeks of stalemate.”
Taoiseach Brian Cowen said the agreement laid the foundations for a new future: “That better future must be built on mutual respect for people of different traditions, equality and tolerance and respect for each other's polit
ical aspirations and cultural expressions and inheritance.”
Northern Ireland Secretary of State Shaun Woodward also praised Peter Robinson saying he had “cleared his name” and had no questions to answer regarding his role over his wife Iris’s financial dealings on behalf of her young lover.
“He is an outstanding politician, just as Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams and Nigel Dodds have been throughout this process, and I'm looking forward to seeing the First Minister and Deputy First Minister moving forward and ensuring that people get what they need in Northern Ireland, which is good government.”
Key points that were dealt with in new Hillsborough Agreement
The 21-page Hillsborough Agreement sets out plans for devolving policing and justice powers, dealing with contentious loyal order parades and resolving outstanding |issues facing the Executive.
Key points include:
- Powers to be devolved on April 12, following the formal passing of a resolution in the Assembly on March 9.
- The First Minister and Deputy First Minister will consider applications for the new Justice Minister on Monday. With neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein to nominate candidates, the leader of the non-aligned Alliance Party David Ford is tipped for the role, to be decided by cross-community vote in the Assembly.
- While the new minister will have the same status as all other ministers in the power-sharing Cabinet, he or she will have the ability to take certain urgent decisions without recourse to colleagues.
- A six-member working group, appointed by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, will formulate a framework for new parade management procedures.
- Its work will place emphasis on allowing local people to find solutions to local parading problems, with the rights of marchers and residents taken into account.
- In instances when accommodation cannot be found, it is envisaged that an adjudication panel made up of lay and legal representatives will rule.
- The Executive will transfer responsibilities for parading legislation from Westminster and table a new Bill based on the group's proposals.
- The current Parades Commission will continue to |adjudicate on contentious marches until the new framework comes into operation — expected at the end of 2010.
- An Executive working group will be set up to examine ways to improve the operation of the Cabinet. It is intended this will be co-chaired by Ulster Unionist leader and Employment Minister Sir Reg Empey and SDLP Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie.
- DUP and Sinn Fein junior ministers Robin Newton and Gerry Kelly will chair another Executive working group to progress issues the Cabinet has so far failed to agree on. These include the stalled shake-up and restructuring of the education system.
- The First Minister and Deputy First Minister will conduct an exercise to address matters still outstanding from the 2006 St Andrews Agreement. These include legislative measures to protect the rights of Irish language speakers.