Today’s deal to save the North's power-sharing government will help secure lasting peace in the region, the United States said today.
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton praised the agreement unveiled by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Taoiseach Brian Cowen which will see policing and justice powers devolved from Westminster to the Stormont Assembly by April 12.
The deal was announced with First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at Hillsborough Castle, Co Down, where the DUP and Sinn Féin held nearly two weeks of round-the-clock negotiations.
The deal meets republican demands for the transfer of law and order powers, while detailed timetables also set out a framework to meet unionist calls for a new system to oversee loyal order parades.
Mr Brown praised the settlement and said: “The achievements have been as great as they are inspirational.
“This moment and this agreement belongs to the people of Northern Ireland, all of the people, and now more than ever before, so does their future.”
He added: “This is the last chapter of a long and troubled story and the beginning of a new chapter after decades of violence, years of talks, weeks of stalemate.”
Mr Cowen also said today’s deal laid the foundations for a new future.
He said: “That better future must be built on mutual respect for people of different traditions, equality and tolerance and respect for each other’s political aspirations and cultural expressions and inheritance.”
The 21-page document produced today includes systems to try to ensure greater cooperation in the power-sharing government made up of unionist, republican and nationalist politicians.
There is also a pledge to deal with outstanding issues, believed to include protection for the Irish language and promoting the Ulster Scots tongue.
Mr Robinson said: “There are some who will play politics with this agreement but the real focus in the months to come must be on building an administration at Stormont that our whole community identifies with and supports.”
Mr McGuinness said that as an Irish republican he wanted to see a united Ireland but he recognised that unionists wanted to maintain links with Britain. He insisted both communities could and should live together in mutual respect.
“We need to make life better for our children and grandchildren,” he said. “That is what this agreement must mean in practice.”
Mrs Clinton said: “Today, Northern Ireland has taken another important step toward a full and lasting peace.
“Its political leaders have agreed on a roadmap and a timeline for the devolution of policing and justice powers, and they have taken other productive steps as well. The accord they reached today will help consolidate the hard-won gains of the past decade.”
She added: “This has not been an easy road. There were plenty of bumps along the way. I have been in regular contact with the parties since my trip to Belfast in October, and I know that at times the path forward was far from clear.”
The senior US politician praised those who brokered the deal and promised her continued support for the peace process and the efforts to foster economic links across the Atlantic.
“Now, we join the world in looking to the leaders of Northern Ireland to build upon their efforts by promoting a new spirit of cooperation among all parties,” she said.
Chief Constable Matt Baggott welcomed the announcement that agreement had been reached.
He said: “I do believe that devolution is a step to a safer, secure, more peaceful Northern Ireland, and look forward to working with the new Minister and the Department of Justice in due course.”
Leader of the Alliance Party David Ford, tipped to become Justice Minister when the new powers are devolved, said: “It is clear the people of Northern Ireland could not have tolerated failure and certainly the agreement seen this morning between the DUP and Sinn Féin has to be welcomed as a step towards removing the poison that exists in our political system.”
SDLP leader Mark Durkan, who leaves his party’s top job tomorrow and who has been closely involved in the history of the North's peace talks, expressed hopes that the new deal would undermine violent groups.
“We want to confound the sinister agenda of the so-called dissidents, so-called republicans,” he said. “We want to make sure devolution works a lot better that it has been doing.”
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said that despite public concern over the slow progress of the long-running negotiations, he urged people to study the agreement and see its potential.
He said: “It is another step on the journey, it is a very, very clear step and I suppose it depends on how society responds to what we are proposing.”
Leader of the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party Dawn Purvis welcomed the deal.
“I think it is hugely significant, it is what the people of Northern Ireland wanted, it is what all the political parties wanted. It means we are not facing an election, which would have been absolutely disastrous,” she said.
The Ulster Unionist Party refused to attend the launch of the agreement and has said it will study its contents.
But leader of the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice Jim Allister condemned the deal.
While, under the terms of the agreement, neither the DUP nor Sinn Féin will hold the new justice ministry, he said he was outraged that republicans will jointly lead a government responsible for law and order.