By Ian Graham in Belfast and Conor Humphries
Irish nationalists and pro-British unionists in Northern Ireland struck a deal on Tuesday covering austerity spending and historic crimes, staving off a collapse of the power-sharing government set up in 1998 to end decades of sectarian violence.
First Minister Peter Robinson said the deal, reached after months of talks and several missed deadlines, paved the way for the British province to acquire devolved powers to set its own corporation tax rate.
It is something the parties in Belfast have long sought, offering Northern Ireland the chance to set a more competitive rate nearer the 12.5 per cent of the adjacent Irish Republic rather than the 21 per cent now shared with the rest of Britain.
The breakthrough came after 27 hours of talks between Irish nationalists led by Sinn Fein, the Democratic Unionist Party and representatives of the governments of Britain and Ireland.
The deal will see the Northern Irish government getting extra cash and borrowing powers of 2 billion pounds. It sets in motion the reduction of government departments at Stormont from 12 to nine and paves the way for an official opposition.
“It has been a challenging and, at times, difficult process for all concerned,” said Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan.
It also sets a framework for dealing with the “corrosive legacy of the past”, as Flanagan put it. This would include an oral history archive and a dedicated unit to investigate deaths during the Northern Irish conflict.
The parties agreed in principle to transfer responsibility for handling the volatile issue of sectarian parades by nationalist Roman Catholics and pro-British Protestants from the British government in London to the Northern Irish parliament.
But regional Justice Minister David Ford, a member of the non-sectarian Alliance Party, criticised that arrangement, saying it lacked detail and was “storing up problems for the future.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government called all-party talks nine weeks ago to break the deadlock.
The standoff was one of the worst in Northern Ireland since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that stopped protracted bloodshed between mainly Catholic nationalists seeking a merger with the Irish Republic and primarily Protestant unionists resolved to keep Northern Ireland within Britain.
First Minister and Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson said Friday’s accord was “a monumental step (and) “beneficial to all. This is only the start. It is not the end, but about how we move forward.”