Belfast wins major governing powers in landmark deal

Northern Ireland lawmakers voted to transfer policing and justice powers from London to Belfast in a milestone decision on Tuesday. The deal was passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly with an overwhelming majority of 88 ‘yes’ votes, to 17 ‘no’.



The Northern Ireland Assembly voted in favour of an agreement to transfer two major governing powers, judicial and policing, from London to Belfast, in a landmark vote on Tuesday.

The decision, which was passed with an overwhelming majority of 88 ‘yes’ votes, had only 17 dissenters, all of whom came from union groups eager to retain ties to Britain.

Earlier, former US President George W. Bush had made a rare foray into international politics by trying to persuade – indirectly – one of Northern Ireland leading unionist parties, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), to support a key vote on the transfer of the powers to the province.

The call was made to British opposition leader David Cameron, whose Conservative Party has an electoral pact with the UUP.

Conservative Party spokesman Owen Paterson confirmed to the Guardian newspaper that a “positive” conversation had taken place, but that Cameron had told Bush that he could not force the UUP’s hand.

UUP leader Sir Reg Empey told FRANCE 24 the former US president’s advice was welcome but that it would not change his party’s stance.

“While we appreciate the help former President Bush gave us over the years in terms of economic development and other matters, I think he misunderstands the relationship between the UUP and Conservative parties,” he said.

Clinton picks up the phone

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was also in touch, speaking to UUP leader Sir Reg Empey on Friday and to Northern Ireland's first and deputy first ministers, Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Martin McGuinness (Sinn Fein), at the weekend.

Pressure from McGuinness and Robinson on the UPP to support the plan, however, seems to have only strengthened the party’s opposition.

“Their bully-boy tactics have served only to galvanise the UUP, who will continue to act solely in the best interests of Northern Ireland,” UPP deputy leader Danny Kennedy told FRANCE 24.

He added: “We have consistently stated that we want to see policing and justice powers exercised by a local minister accountable to local representatives. However the conditions must be right – we must show that the Assembly can handle the power that it has before it takes on even more contentious powers.”

Old foes sharing power

The agreement was carved out last month between the DUP and Sinn Fein, one-time foes who now share power in a devolved government.

Under the deal, policing and justice powers – a highly sensitive issue due to Northern Ireland's bloody sectarian history – are expected to be transferred from London to Belfast on April 12.

This will be the final major step in the devolution process which started in 1998.

The UUP, like the DUP, is Protestant and favours Northern Ireland remaining part of Britain. Sinn Fein is Catholic and wants Northern Ireland to become part of a united Ireland.

Sinn Fein and the DUP are both expected to support the deal and the UUP’s “no” vote is unlikely to stop it from going through. However, it would undermine efforts to show that the deal enjoys wide support among the unionist community.



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