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Boost for devolution after Sinn Fein vote

Latest update : 2007-12-28

The Irish Republican party Sinn Fein has taken a historic decision in recognising the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

DUBLIN, Jan 29, 2007 (AFP) - Northern Ireland's largest Catholic party Sinn Fein on Sunday agreed to support police in the British-run province, in a historic vote overcoming the last major hurdle to the restoration of self-rule there.

The landmark yes vote, which was widely expected, was welcomed by the British and Irish prime ministers, while the province's largest Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists (DUP), said that the conference's decision would be rendered meaningless if Sinn Fein did not fully implement it.

The DUP had previously said they were unwilling to form an executive with Sinn Fein without an endorsement like the one given on Sunday.

"Today you have created the potential to change the political landscape on this island forever," party president Gerry Adams said in an address to delegates, after they voted overwhelmingly by a show of hands to back the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

British Prime Minister Tony Blair welcomed the decision, with a spokesman for his Downing Street office telling AFP: "The prime minister welcomes this historic decision and he recognises the leadership it has taken to get to this point."

Blair's Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern hailed the "landmark decision" which he said "opens the way for inclusive support for policing throughout Northern Ireland. That is profoundly in the interests of everybody."

Ahern and Blair plan to meet on Tuesday to discuss the developments in the British province, and their two governments are due to publish a special report by the Northern Ireland parliamentary watchdog, the Independent Monitoring Commission.

The special report is likely to be released this week, a spokesman for Britain's Northern Ireland office told AFP.

Ian Paisley, the DUP's firebrand leader, responded to Sunday's vote by saying: "No post-dated action can take the place of real delivery. The postponements must come to an end."

"Only with real delivery can the way be cleared for a full return to democracy and a facing up to the everyday needs and requirements of the people of Northern Ireland," he said.

Earlier, Sinn Fein's leaders had urged party members to back the motion, which had been divisive among the wider republican movement, who said it effectively meant endorsing Britain's presence in Northern Ireland.

Adams and Sinn Fein's chief negotiator Martin McGuinness both received death threats, while the conference was picketed by dissident republican groups.

The demonstrators included members of Republican Sinn Fein, a separate party formed in 1986 after Sinn Fein ended its policy of boycotting the Irish parliament in Dublin and Belfast.

Placards read "Yes to British withdrawal", "No British police, no British laws, no British courts acceptable in Ireland".

Republicans -- who largely favour union with the Republic of Ireland in the south -- have long perceived a Protestant bias within the PSNI and its predecessor, the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Last week, a police ombudsman's report said that the police colluded with and protected Protestant paramilitaries in the early 1990s.

Adams offered, however, to meet the leaders of the dissident republican groups to listen to any alternative strategy they might have.

Sinn Fein's refusal to support policing has been a major stumbling block in efforts to restore the assembly, which has been suspended since 2002 amid allegations of a republican spy ring operating there.

In November, however, Ireland and Britain struck an accord in St Andrews, Scotland, aiming to restore power-sharing between Protestants, who mostly back retaining links with Britain, and Catholics.

The target for a new self-rule administration is March 26.

The Sinn Fein vote paves the way for elections to be called in March and for restoring the Northern Ireland assembly with responsibilities shared between Catholics and Protestants.

A rejection of police support would have seen the assembly dissolved and Northern Ireland run indefinitely from London.

Date created : 2007-01-29