Northern Ireland's long-feuding Protestant and Catholic leaders ended a five-month deadlock Tuesday by agreeing to form a Justice Department that will oversee the police and courts.
Catholics have long rejected British control of law enforcement and justice in Northern Ireland. Handing joint control to British Protestants and Irish Catholics is meant to ensure that a power-sharing deal between the two sides will not unravel, undoing the central objective of a decade-old peace agreement.
"For the first time we have seen a breakthrough in the deadlock over the devolution of policing and justice," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in London. "This is the last building block in the process for bringing peace and democracy to Northern Ireland."
First Minister Peter Robinson, a Protestant, and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a Catholic, stood side by side at Stormont Castle — the power-sharing base in Protestant east Belfast — to unveil a deal reached in behind-the-scenes negotiations over the weekend.
Opening the door to new Justice Department
The agreement commits both sides to support the selection of a politician from another party to oversee the new Justice Department.
The IRA killed nearly 1,800 people, including 300 police officers, in a failed 1970-97 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. The IRA renounced violence and disarmed in 2005. McGuinness' party Sinn Fein accepted the authority of the Northern Ireland police in 2007, opening the door for power-sharing with the Protestant majority.
But Robinson's Democratic Unionists had been blocking a new Justice Department for more than a year, in part, because they oppose giving any role in overseeing law and order to McGuinness or other veterans of the outlawed Irish Republican Army.
Sinn Fein had been blocking all Cabinet meetings since June, rendering the power-sharing government dysfunctional. McGuinness said he would permit the Cabinet to resume meeting Thursday.
The two sides have already agreed to appoint a prominent lawyer, John Larkin, as Northern Ireland's attorney general, a new post.
No target dates or deadlines
McGuinness and Robinson declined to express any concrete deadlines or target dates. Instead, they expressed a word-for-word hope of seeing Britain transfer justice powers "without undue delay."
Robinson and McGuinness agreed that taxpayers throughout the United Kingdom should foot the bill of the new Justice Department, and said they expected Brown to agree to increase British funds to Northern Ireland.
The rest of the UK already subsidizes the cost of government services in Northern Ireland to the tune of several million pounds (more than $10 million) annually. Brown has emphasized that he expects Northern Ireland increasingly to cover its own costs — or take responsibility for cutting services and the province's bloated government payroll.