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Northern Ireland Political Parties Reach Key Accord

The two largest political parties in Northern Ireland have reached a key accord paving the way for transferring judicial and policing powers from London to Belfast.

Northern Ireland is governed by a 12-member Executive made up of representatives from the province's main political parties. The chief executive - or First Minister - is Peter Robinson, leader of the largest political party in Northern Ireland, the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP. The Deputy First Minister is Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army and the largest nationalist party.

The 12-member Executive is named by the (108-member) Northern Ireland Assembly. The power-sharing government has been in place since May 2007. Before that, from 2002 to 2007, Northern Ireland was under direct rule from London after a previous power-sharing agreement collapsed.

Darwin Templeton is editor of the "Belfast Newsletter" - a daily with close ties to the pro-British, Protestant community. He says Northern Ireland's system of government is unique.

"We have a very peculiar system of government here where basically all parties are guaranteed a seat in the government - that's a 'mandatory coalition' as it is called. And the parties are then awarded seats in the government according to their strengths in the Assembly," said Templeton. "Now that is obviously put in place to guarantee that both communities have a voice in the government - and there are checks and balances to make sure that neither side can dominate the other," he said.

Since 2007, many of the responsibilities for running Northern Ireland were transferred from London to Belfast - a process known as "devolution." The British province is now responsible for its own policies on education, health and the environment as well as financial issues.

But two key powers remained under London's control: justice and policing.

Noel Doran is editor of Belfast's "Irish News" - a newspaper reflecting the views of the Catholic, nationalist community that favors a merger with Ireland. He says it was time to transfer responsibility for the justice system and police to Northern Ireland's government.

"It's a very sensitive area for unionists who would be cautious about any suggestion that the link with Britain was being in some way undermined," he said. "But on the other hand it was hugely important to the nationalist parties, particularly Sinn Fein, because it demonstrated that they were making progress, it demonstrated that they would be able to influence a very important area of life here - and demonstrated that change had been achieved through the ballot box. It has often been referred to as the last piece of the jigsaw," he added.

Doran says negotiations on transferring policing and judicial responsibilities to Northern Ireland were lengthy and difficult.

"A series of discussions took place and really reached a climax last month with the decision to call in the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen for talks which it was hoped would seal the deal," he said. "Now those talks went on and on and on, day after day, and eventually the two prime ministers left. The discussions continued and after almost two weeks, the two prime ministers returned and a deal was concluded," said Doran.

The agreement (reached February 5) between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein creates a new post of Justice Minister for Northern Ireland. It also says judicial and policing powers will be transferred from London to Belfast by April 12. Before that, the accord must be approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly with a vote expected in early March.

Darwin Templeton says the deal salvaged the power-sharing government that meets at Belfast's Stormont Castle.

"Certainly the most important thing about the deal was that it kept Stormont alive," he said. "Had a deal of some description not been reached, I think we were looking at the collapse of Stormont. And if Stormont had collapsed, I think it could have been many, many years before it ever got back on its feet again. So I think the most significant part of what happened was that our government here in Belfast, our Stormont administration was kept alive," said Templeton.

Addressing reporters after the agreement was reached, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: "This is the last chapter of a long and troubled story and a beginning of a new chapter after decades of violence, years of talks, weeks of stalemate."