Surprise as George Bush intervenes in N. Ireland peace process
Northern Ireland faced a crunch vote on policing and justice Tuesday, prompting a rare intervention from former US president George W. Bush as leaders scrambled to keep devolution on track.
Bush called the leader of Britain’s main opposition Conservatives, David Cameron, in the hope of persuading him to talk his allies the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) out of opposing the deal.
But it appeared the intervention was likely to have little effect, with the UUP vowing to hold firm in opposing the deal and the Conservatives admitting they cannot “order around” the UUP.
The Northern Ireland Assembly is voting on an agreement carved out last month after days of negotiations between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein, the one-time foes who now share power in a devolved government.
Under the deal, policing and justice powers — a highly sensitive issue due to Northern Ireland’s bloody sectarian history — would transfer from London to Belfast on April 12.
This would be the final major piece in the devolution process which started in 1998.
Although a UUP no-vote would not wreck the deal, there are fears it could ultimately prove unsustainable without all-party support.
Conservative Northern Ireland spokesman Owen Paterson confirmed a report in the Guardian newspaper that Bush had called Cameron, telling BBC radio it was “a very constructive and friendly conversation”.
Cameron had subsequently spoken to UUP leader Reg Empey, he said, but added: “It doesn’t matter how eminent the people are that put pressure on us or on the Ulster Unionist party, we are not in a position to order the Ulster Unionist party around.”
The Guardian said White House was so concerned about the situation that the US economic envoy to Northern Ireland, Declan Kelly, had persuaded Bush to step in and contact Cameron.
“This is the most active thing George W. Bush has done in his post-presidency period,” one anonymous source quoted by the paper said.
The paper also published a letter to Cameron from a bipartisan group of 21 US Congress members urging him to encourage the UUP to back the deal and “secure the future” for the people of Northern Ireland.
The Conservatives are just ahead of Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s ruling Labour party in opinion polls ahead of a general election likely on May 6 and are to field joint candidates with the UUP in Northern Ireland at the poll.
But the UUP is sounding uncompromising over the vote.
Empey has said his party is facing “blackmail and bullying” while Ken Maginnis, a senior UUP member now in Britain’s House of Lords who backs devolution, described policing and justice in Northern Ireland as “a broken machine”.
“What on earth do they (Bush and the US congressmen) know about day-to-day security and justice in Northern Ireland?” he told BBC radio.
“We’re being asked to take over a broken machine and what we’re saying is: ‘Hey hold on, we’ve enough trouble building up an assembly… don’t foist on us a broken machine called policing and justice'”.
The UUP, like the DUP, is Protestant and favours Northern Ireland remaining part of Britain. Sinn Fein is Catholic and wants Northern Ireland to become part of a united Ireland.
Sinn Fein and the DUP are both expected to support the deal.
Northern Ireland’s three decades of violence known as “The Troubles”, in which more than 3,500 people died, have largely been ended by a 1998 peace deal but sporadic violence still rocks the province.
Last month, a massive car bomb exploded outside a courthouse in Newry, south of Belfast. Police said it was a “miracle” no one was hurt.