A landmark deal between Northern Ireland’s two major political parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein, on Friday removed the last hurdle in granting full autonomy to the province envisaged in the 1998 Good Friday agreement that brought decades of sectarian violence to an end.
The deal, hailed by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown as reflecting “a new spirit of mutual cooperation and respect”, paves the way for transferring policing and justice powers from the central government in London to the provincial administration in Belfast.
If all goes well, the handover of powers should take place on April 12 following a cross-party vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly on March 9.
The issue had plunged the peace process into a crisis with Sinn Fein threatening to pull out of the ruling coalition, in which it shares powers with DUP, if a date was not set for transferring policing and justice powers to the local government.
Sinn Fein, representing the Republican Catholic viewpoint, sees the transfer of powers in these two areas as crucial to the idea of a fully autonomous Northern Ireland. The DUP, which favours continued political union with the United Kingdom, is wary of trusting the Republicans with policing and justice.
The deal came after weeks of “crisis” talks often mediated by Mr. Brown and his Irish counterpart Brian Cowen. The two rushed to Belfast on Friday morning to “seal” the agreement.
“We are closing the last chapter of a long and troubled story and we are opening a new chapter for Northern Ireland,” said Mr. Brown.
Mr. Cowen described the agreement as “an essential step for peace, stability and security in Northern Ireland”.
DUP leader Peter Robinson, who narrowly survived a bitter power struggle within the party over the issue, looked a relieved man.
“This is a sound deal which I recommend,” he said at a joint press conference with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness
Mr. McGuinness said it was “the day when the political process in the north came of age”.