26-County Taoiseach Brian Cowen and British prime minister Gordon Brown declared “early completion” of the devolution of policing and justice powers to the North is achievable despite the turmoil within unionism over the Iris Robinson affair.
The sense of uncertainty and displacement following the lurid scandal over DUP leader Peter Robinson’s wife Iris, which forced him to ‘step aside’ from his position as First Minister for a period of six weeks, has provoked a strong effort to shore up the faltering Stormont administration.
Sinn Fein has applied heavy pressure on the two governments to “face up to their responsiblity” to being about the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast. Following years of political stalemate between Sinn Fein and the DUP, and with a British general election looming, there are fears within the nationalist party that the opportunity to ending direct British control over policing in the north of Ireland is fading.
Cowen and Gordon met in Downing Street this afternoon to discuss ‘Robinsongate’ and the latest crisis to hit the stalled political process.
Mr Cowen and Mr Brown welcomed talks which took place between Sinn Fein and DUP delegations this week and said they were available if required “to help bring these discussions to a successful conclusion”.
In a statement, the leaders said: “When we met on December 17th, we said that we believed that the early completion of the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly was both realistic and achievable and that any outstanding issues were capable of resolution by the parties.
“Despite the turbulent events of recent days, we remain firmly of that view.”
The two leaders said the recent dissident republican attack on the PSNI last Friday was a “stark reminder that there remain those whose aim is to destroy all that has been achieved”.
DUP leader Peter Robinson, who has temporarily stood down as First Minister, was in London yesterday on business relating to his wife Iris’s mental illness but was said to have been keeping in touch with the negotiations.
British Direct Ruler Shaun Woodward, who met Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheal Martin in Dublin on Tuesday night, called on unionists to reach a deal on policing and justice. He warned against parties leaving a political “vacuum” that would be filled by dissident attacks.
There were also upbeat messages from a variety of participants in the political process, notably including the DUP.
The acting First Minister Arlene Foster, filling in temporarily for Mr Robinson, said a deal on policing and justice would be the “last piece of the jigsaw” for devolution.
While all the parties refused to discuss detail, she that the DUP must ensure any deal was done “in the right way”.
“I believe it will be for the best for the people of Northern Ireland, but we must do it in a way that we bring it to a Northern Ireland that is stable so the policing powers that come here will be durable and lasting,” Ms Foster told the BBC.
“Our chief constable would say he’s already the most accountable chief constable in these islands,” she added.
“There is a lot of devolved power already in Northern Ireland in relation to policing and justice - this is really the last piece of the jigsaw and we want to make sure that we’re doing it in the right way.”
Some commentators have claimed a deal will be reached within days, and intensive negotiations are expected to take place behind the scenes over the weekend. Significant factors remain the looming Westminster general election and the six-weeks deadline faced by Peter Robinson in his bid for political salvation.
There was considerable speculation that the Robinson scandal might have put the DUP sufficiently off-balance to break through the party’s normal intransigence. However, Mrs Foster rejected claims by the UUP that a deal on policing would be forged “under duress”. An unusually hardline position adopted by UUP leader Reg Empey appeared motivated by speculation that the DUP might abandon hardline unionist voters in the wake of the scandal and instead woo moderate unionists by forging the long-awaited deal on policing. Empey demanded his party be included in the negotiations.
Unionist extremist TUV leader Jim Allister railed against any possible deal while warning that the political process was approaching “terminal shambolic failure”.
On Wednesday night, it emerged that a potential compromise deal on contentious parades could hold the key to securing agreement. The DUP have repeatedly demanded that the Parades Commission, which adjudicates on the routes of sectarian parades, be scrapped.
“The engagement is ongoing”, said Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, who would speak only in general terms.
“It is a meaningful engagement and it is designed from our perspective to get a result on which is a difficult issue to resolve but one, if it is resolved, will be absolutely in the interests of our entire community,” he said.
Sinn Fein junior minister Gerry Kelly urged against any comments that might unsettle the negotiations and revealed he had warned Mr Woodward against commenting publicly.
“I had a meeting with Shaun Woodward on Tuesday and what I told him was that sometimes they are better not doing publicity,” he said.
“He and the British Government need to remember they are the guarantors of some of the obligations of the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement, and maybe they want to keep their eye to what their obligations are and leave us to try and sort this out. He doesn’t always have to have a soundbite.”