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N Ireland political rivals accept deal

Britain and Ireland unveil a breakthrough agreement that saves Northern Ireland's Catholic-Protestant unity government.

Irish prime minister Brian Cowen, left, and Britain's prime minister Gordon Brown, second left, are greeted by the secretary of state for Northern Ireland ,Shawn Woodward, third right, Irish foreign affairs minster Michael Martin, second right, and Northern Ireland security minister Paul Goggins, right, at Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland, on February 5, 2010.
Irish prime minister Brian Cowen, left, and Britain's prime minister Gordon Brown, second left, are greeted by the secretary of state for Northern Ireland ,Shawn Woodward, third right, Irish foreign affairs minster Michael Martin, second right, and Northern Ireland security minister Paul Goggins, right, at Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland, on February 5, 2010.

HILLSBOROUGH, NORTHERN IRELAND // The prime ministers of Britain and Ireland unveiled a breakthrough agreement today that saves Northern Ireland's Catholic-Protestant unity government. Both sides' negotiators gathered at Hillsborough Castle near Belfast to meet Gordon Brown of Britain and Brian Cowen of Ireland, who last week launched a personal mission to prevent the collapse of power-sharing, the central achievement of Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord.

Mr Brown said the agreement was possible because of "a new spirit of mutual co-operation and respect." Mr Cowen, who joined him at a press conference with local Catholic and Protestant leaders, called the painstakingly negotiated deal "an essential step for peace, stability and security in Northern Ireland." The breakthrough came at midnight following 10 days of round-the-clock talks, when the key Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists, announced their lawmakers' unanimous backing for the still-confidential deal on how Northern Ireland will take control of its justice system from Britain.

The major Irish Catholic party, Sinn Fein, had declared its support earlier. Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson, who leads the often-troubled government coalition formed in 2007, defended the marathon nature of the negotiations. "Over recent weeks there may have been great frustration out in the community," Mr Robinson said. "But there would have been even greater frustration if we did a deal that collapsed. So it is far better that we spend the extra time and we get it right."

Mr Robinson said his party's lawmakers "have unanimously supported the way forward. ... This is a sound deal and one that I can recommend." Sinn Fein - which precipitated the crisis by threatening to withdraw from the coalition - welcomed the Protestants' decision. "(This lets us) proceed on the basis of equality, fairness and partnership," said Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. The accord chiefly charts a path for creating a new Justice Department in Belfast that will take control from Britain of the province's police and courts. Britain hopes to transfer justice powers to local hands April 12 before a British general election expected the following month.

The Democratic Unionists had blocked the Justice Department plans for two years, reflecting fears of permitting former Irish Republican Army commanders in Sinn Fein any role in overseeing law-and-order issues. Alliance Party leader David Ford, whose party is currently shut out of power sharing, is expected to be appointed justice minister. Mr Ford said the public expected politicians to quickly establish the Justice Department and stop their squabbling. "After having had such a long delay, we should get agreement and implementation as fast as possible. There should be no excuse for lengthy delay," said Mr Ford.

Northern Ireland power sharing was designed to end a conflict that claimed 3,700 lives since the late 1960s. * AP