British, Irish PMs in N.Ireland to seal deal

BELFAST: British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Irish counterpart Brian Cowen arrived in Northern Ireland on Friday to formally announce a long-awaited deal to save the province's power-sharing government.

The prime ministers went to Belfast after the province's main Protestant party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), announced late Thursday they had agreed to back a deal with their Catholic power-sharing partners, Sinn Fein.

The news came after almost two weeks of round-the-clock negotiations to reach agreement on transferring policing and justice powers from London to Belfast, a vital step in the province's devolution process.

The Protestant group, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), had also been demanding concessions on controversial Protestant parades that pass near Catholic areas.

The political standoff prompted fears the power-sharing government -- a vital part of the peace process -- might collapse entirely, plunging the troubled province into fresh chaos.

Three decades of violence between communities supporting and opposed to British rule in the province that killed at least 3,500 people was largely ended by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which Britain and Ireland helped broker.

The announcement by DUP leader Peter Robinson late Thursday signalled the party had finally reached a compromise with Sinn Fein, ending the province's most dangerous political crisis in recent years.

After a two-hour meeting in Belfast, Robinson, who is also leader of Northern Ireland's power-sharing government, said the elected members of his party had "considered the matter and have unanimously supported the way forward."

Full details of the proposals would be announced later Friday, said the first minister.

"We have a basis upon which we can go forward and recommend it (the deal) to our party, to the other parties in Northern Ireland and to the community," said Robinson.

His announcement came after Sinn Fein said earlier Thursday talks had ended and the basis for a deal existed. The DUP's executive is expected to ratify its party's decision later Friday.

The final deal is aimed at satisfying both sides, British media reported, with compromises on the quick transfer to policing and justice to Belfast and on overseeing the Protestant parade, said reports.

Thursday's breakthrough came a day after Peter Robinson resumed his duties as first minister after being cleared over a scandal, a development commentators said had given a boost to the slow-moving negotiations.

Before the first minister was cleared over allegations linking him to his scandal-hit wife's impropriety, it had been widely reported the DUP was split over a deal and had rejected his earlier proposals.

An internal investigation found Robinson had not breached official rules and Wednesday he stepped backed into the role of first minister that he had temporarily relinquished on January 11.

A BBC television investigation had alleged financial impropriety by Iris Robinson and a possible breach of disclosure rules by her husband in connection to her affair with a 19-year-old.