Last updated: January 27, 2010 6:59 pm

N Ireland power-sharing in doubt

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Gordon Brown and Brian Cowe

British prime minister Gordon Brown (left) and his Irish counterpart Brian Cowen during a press conference in Hillsborough, Northern Ireland

The future of Northern Ireland power-sharing looked in doubt on Wednesday after three days of talks broke up in acrimony, with Gordon Brown, the prime minister, and Brian Cowen, his Irish counterpart, unable to broker a deal on policing.

The prime ministers said they were giving the squabbling local parties until Friday to settle their differences, otherwise London and Dublin, as guarantors of the peace process, would set out their own proposals for the way forward.

Mr Brown, however, dismissed suggestions the talks had ended in failure. “I don’t think we have failed. I think we have made enormous progress from where we were on Monday, where quite honestly the parties were not talking to each other.”

But the new deadline is a last-ditch bid to avoid the threat that Sinn Féin may quit the executive if the Democratic Unionists refuse to commit themselves to a date for devolving policing powers. This would trigger immediate assembly elections, which officials fear would exacerbate community divisions and make a deal even more elusive.

Speaking at a joint press conference with the Irish, Mr Brown said he had presented a “pathway to an agreement”. He described the document, tabled at a plenary session on Tuesday, as a “reasonable settlement of all the outstanding issues” from the 2006 St Andrews talks, at which the DUP and Sinn Féin had promised to end decades of enmity by sharing power.

Mr Brown said the stalemate was “threatening” the assembly and executive and that agreement would “send a signal” to republican and other dissidents opposed to power-sharing.

The prime minister said it was “feasible” for the assembly to approve new policing arrangements with a cross-community vote in early March, with devolution taking place “around the beginning of May”.

The timetable appears to be framed with a British general election in mind. However, local analysts fear the DUP also calculates it could lose votes to the dissident party Traditional Unionist Voice if it concedes ground to Sinn Féin close to the election.

A “deeply disappointed” Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin deputy first minister, said the DUP attempt to link a deal on policing with demands for unionist concessions on parading had prevented agreement.

“One thing is certain – citizens’ rights and entitlement will not be made subject to a unionist veto or Orange Order precondition,” he said, refusing to be drawn on whether Sinn Féin ministers would leave the executive.

Peter Robinson, DUP leader, warned Sinn Féin would incur “the wrath of the community” if it quits.

“People out there are not obsessing about the issue of policing and justice. It needs to be resolved but it should not be at the expense of dealing with good government . . . I believe the community would be outraged if anyone was to walk away.”

Mr Robinson reiterated his party was in favour of policing devolution but had given no commitment to a date at St Andrews. But Mr Cowen said: “This is about making sure we deal with not only the letter of the agreements but also the spirit of these agreements.”

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