Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein voted to end decades of opposition to Northern Ireland’s police force on Sunday, removing a key obstacle to the restoration of a regional power-sharing government in the British province.
The party, political ally of the Irish Republican Army which killed nearly 300 police officers during a 30-year campaign against British rule, voted overwhelmingly at a special meeting in Dublin to back the Protestant-dominated force.
The vote, a momentous step for Sinn Fein, could end political stalemate in Northern Ireland after the suspension in 2002 of a power-sharing assembly between majority pro-British Protestants and a Catholic minority who want a united Ireland.
Backing for the rule of law is required by the province’s biggest pro-British Protestant grouping, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), before it will consider sharing power in a Belfast-based assembly set up under a 1998 peace deal.
“The decision we have taken today is truly historic,” Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said at the end of the conference, which was attended by more than 2,000 delegates.
“You have created the opportunity to significantly advance our struggle—it’s now up to you,” he told the gathering.
Sinn Fein’s predominantly Catholic support base has long viewed the province’s justice system as favoring Protestants.
No one from the DUP was immediately available to comment but the party has repeatedly said it will wait to see proof of Sinn Fein’s commitment before making any final decisions.
More than 3,600 people were killed in Northern Ireland’s conflict, with the IRA responsible for nearly half the deaths.
Violence has subsided over the past decade and the province is enjoying increased prosperity, but the two communities remain deeply divided and political cooperation has proved difficult.
There had been speculation that a report earlier this week detailing collusion between senior Northern Ireland police officers and Protestant killers could stiffened resistance among hard-liners but the Sinn Fein leadership held up the revelations as further reason to become involved in law and order.
Reassurances by the British government in recent weeks about limiting the role of spy service MI5 in the province’s security arrangements, and restrictions on the use of plastic bullets have also helped ease Sinn Fein jitters.
The result was welcomed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair who wants to break the impasse in Northern Ireland before he leaves office this year.
“The Prime Minister welcomes this historic decision and recognizes the leadership it has taken to get to this point,” a spokesman said.
Earlier, Blair said developments were at a critical stage, with a solid basis for the province’s future within grasp.
“What a fantastic thing that would be—instead of waking up as we used to years ago to violence and terrorism in Northern Ireland, we have the prospect of peace,” he told the BBC.
The regional government, which London and Dublin hope will resume work by March 26, folded four years ago after a spying scandal shattered an already fragile cross-party administration.