BELFAST (Reuters) - The Northern Ireland Assembly on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to take control of its own police and justice powers, cementing the latest hard-won agreement between the province’s divided communities.
The issue had risked scuppering Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government, delicately balanced between republicans and loyalists, in a peace process aimed at ending decades of political violence.
The vote — 88 in favor, 17 against — paves the way for Northern Ireland to have its first justice minister by April 12.
It was the first major test for the Hillsborough Castle Agreement on devolution signed in early February between Ireland’s power-sharing partners, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
A failure to get a deal last month would have brought down the government and analysts had warned a political vacuum could have led to an upsurge in violence.
Dissident militants have already shown their opposition to the entire peace process through an increase in violence over the past year.
Republicans want a united Ireland in contrast to unionists, who wish Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. The political split usually runs along religious lines, with Catholics on one side and Protestants on the other.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who along with his Irish counterpart Brian Cowen helped to broker the Hillsborough Castle Agreement, welcomed the vote.
“The completion of devolution, supported by all sections of the community in Northern Ireland, is the final end to decades of strife. It sends the most powerful message to those who would return to violence: that democracy and tolerance will prevail,” he said in a statement.
Analysts said the continued stability following Tuesday’s “yes” vote, should keep the power-sharing coalition in place until elections are due next year.
Cowen said Tuesday was a historic day, “copper-fastening” the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended some three decades of violence in Northern Ireland, in which 3,600 people died.
“For the first time, we can look forward to policing and justice powers being exercised by democratic institutions on a cross-community basis in Northern Ireland,” he said.
Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson of the DUP said agreement on the transfer of policing and justice was “another step toward a better future for everyone in Northern Ireland.”
Two government opinion polls on Monday showed major public support for the devolution of policing powers, although a minority of politicians remained opposed.
The protracted debate that led to the Hillsborough Castle Agreement stumbled over the issue of a date for transferring powers and a parades commission that oversees marches, a mostly Protestant tradition that has been a flashpoint for sectarian tensions.
Seventeen members of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) — traditionally a more moderate force than the DUP — voted “no,” defying pressure from Britain and the United States.
UUP leader Reg Empey said his party had “grave misgivings over the structures to devolve policing and justice” but would accept “the will of the Assembly.”
Tuesday’s debate marked the first anniversary of the murder of a police officer by dissident republicans. It was the first such killing of a policeman since 1998.
The front runner to be the new justice minister is Alliance Party leader David Ford, whose party is regarded as non-sectarian.
“This is a momentous day for Northern Ireland. This is the start of the process which will see politics here come of age,” Ford said of Tuesday’s vote.
Writing by Barbara Lewis, editing by Robin Pomeroy