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Northern Ireland Deal Reached: Protestants Accept Plan To Share Government With Catholics

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BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Lawmakers from Northern Ireland's major Protestant party have unanimously backed a compromise plan with the Catholic minority to save their power-sharing government, Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson declared Friday.

Robinson, who leads the troubled 2 1/2-year-old coalition at the heart of Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord, announced the midnight breakthrough following 10 days and nights of negotiations that had left negotiators on the edge of exhaustion.

The Catholics of Sinn Fein – who precipitated the power-sharing crisis by threatening to withdraw from the coalition, forcing its collapse – had already announced their backing for the still-confidential plan. But Robinson's Democratic Unionists were publicly divided over whether to cut a new deal with Sinn Fein.

The prime ministers of Britain and Ireland, Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen, are expected to fly back to Northern Ireland later Friday and publish full details of the new power-sharing pact at a press conference in Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast.

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 leader Gerry Adams welcomed the Democratic Unionist approval. He said the deal on offer would clear the way for their crisis-prone coalition to "proceed on the basis of equality, fairness and partnership."

Both leaders declined to discuss specifics of the agreement. It 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 in April.

The Democratic Unionists have blocked the move for two years, reflecting fears of permitting former Irish Republican Army commanders in Sinn Fein any role in overseeing justice issues.

But Robinson said the complex package he negotiated with Sinn Fein would enjoy public confidence.

Democratic Unionist lawmakers had been reluctant to concede Sinn Fein's demand for justice powers to be transferred to Belfast, in part, because a British general election is imminent. Many in the party fear they could lose Protestant votes to harder-line politicians if they are seen now to cooperate too much with Sinn Fein.

The British and Irish premiers personally intervened and started the negotiations Jan. 25 when it appeared that Northern Ireland's unity government of British Protestants and Irish Catholics appeared on the verge of collapse.

Northern Ireland power-sharing was designed to consign to history a conflict that has claimed 3,700 lives since the late 1960s.

Peace has prevailed thanks to 1990s cease-fires and more recent disarmament by the province's major outlawed groups. But the aim of uniting Northern Ireland's 1.8 million residents through a unity government has proved a titanic struggle.

The British, Irish and U.S. governments all back the idea of transferring control over law-and-order issues to a new locally run Justice Department, arguing this would boost Catholic support for the police and criminal justice system.

During the recent negotiations, the Democratic Unionists had demanded a high price in exchange for dropping their veto on the move. It wasn't immediately clear to what extent the approved agreement meets their key demand on Protestant parades.

Robinson had said he wanted to regain freedoms for Northern Ireland's hard-line Protestant fraternal groups to march once again past Sinn Fein power bases. British authorities have barred the traditional summertime parades from the most bitterly disputed streets since the late 1990s following widespread rioting.

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