N.Ireland parties break deadlock with wide-ranging deal

24th December 2014, Comments 0 comments

Rival parties in Northern Ireland finally reached agreement Tuesday over government reforms and dealing with the province's violent past, after months of talks that at times had threatened to topple the fragile unity government.

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) First Minister Peter Robinson said the deal was a "monumental step forward", while his deputy Martin McGuinness, from the rival Sinn Fein, said it was a "remarkable achievement".

Five parties agreed to a programme addressing immediate budgetary issues as well as longer term reforms of welfare and the public sector, underpinned by an extra £2 billion ($3.1 billion, 2.5 billion euros) promised by the British government.

The deal also addressed the highly contentious issues of parades by the once warring Protestant and Catholic communities and the use of the Irish and British flags, although mainly through setting out further consultations.

It promised further services and rights for families of the victims of The Troubles, including a new organisation to investigate unsolved killings during the three decades of civil unrest that left 3,500 people dead.

The 1998 Good Friday peace accords brought an end to most of the violence and paved the way for a devolved executive in Belfast, where both sides in the conflict now share power.

But the DUP remains strongly committed to keeping Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, while socialist Sinn Fein, the political arm of the now defunct IRA paramilitary group, still wants the province to become part of Ireland.

Wrangling over how to implement budget cuts imposed by British Prime Minister David Cameron's government in London had further deepened the divide.

Cameron hailed the "historic" agreement, secured after a marathon negotiating session that capped 12 weeks of talks involving representatives of both the British and Irish governments.

"The parties can now genuinely begin to overcome the key outstanding issues which have been unresolved since the Belfast Agreement" in 1998, said Cameron.

Irish leader Enda Kenny hailed the "courage" of all the parties involved in deal that "will mean that the people of Northern Ireland can look to that brighter future together, with hope and confidence".

US President Barack Obama welcomed the agreement, saying it "enables further progress on dealing with the issues of the past".

"I congratulate all the leaders involved who, once again, have shown that when there is a will and the courage to overcome the issues that have divided the people of Northern Ireland, there is a way to succeed for the benefit of all."

The agreement also paves the way for the British government to hand Belfast greater power over corporation tax to allow it to better compete with its neighbour, Ireland, which has the lowest rate in the European Union.

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© 2014 AFP

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