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Robinson: Northern Ireland agreement means "politics is working"

Irish and British prime ministers gather with Northern Ireland leaders to celebrate new agreement.

Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams holds a copy of an agreement transferring police and justice powers from London to Belfast at a news conference in Hillsborough, Northern Ireland, Feb. 5, 2010. (Julien Behal/Pool/Reuters)

DUBLIN, Ireland ― What started four weeks ago as a sex scandal that threatened to plunge Northern Ireland into crisis has ended in a new political agreement that strengthens the province’s unique power-sharing arrangements.

British prime minister Gordon Brown and his Irish counterpart Brian Cowen flew to Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast before dawn yesterday to celebrate the interparty deal after 10 days of round-the-clock negotiations.

The agreement, worked out by the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein, which aspires to a united Ireland, provides the last elements in the process of devolution painstakingly negotiated over two decades.

The power-sharing Northern Ireland government will take on police and justice powers on  April 12 with the help of a British Government grant of £800 million ($1.25 billion). The communities will cooperate on the handling of contentious Orange Order parades through Catholic areas.

Unionists place much importance on the right of the Orange Order, which celebrates the defeat of Catholic rebels in 1690 by King William of Orange, to parade along traditional routes, even where they are offensive to Catholic residents. Contentious parades have caused major rioting in past years.

The power-sharing threatened to crash in early January after an affair between 59-year-old Iris Robinson, wife of Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson, and a 19-year-old youth, Kirk McCambley, became public.

Robinson stepped down temporarily as First Minister while government lawyers investigated  if financial irregularities existed in connection with his wife’s affair, but he has been cleared.

The prospect of imminent disaster focused Catholic and Protestant politicians who had made the community government dysfunctional over squabbles about Irish language rights, north-south cooperation and loyalist parades.

Robinson and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness appeared together with the two prime ministers for a press concerence.  “This might be the day when the political process comes of age,” McGuinness said.

Robinson said that the deal, achieved after the longest round of continuous negotiations in the tortuous history of the peace process, would secure the power-sharing assembly “for decades to come.” He added, “politics is working, we are not going back to the past.”