The Northern Ireland Assembly is braced for a tense stand-off after the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) declared it will use a crunch vote today to reject the deal brokered to stabilise the power-sharing government.
Despite international pleas for it to support the deal, the party last night insisted it did not believe the power-sharing regime is ready for the devolution of policing and justice powers from Westminster.
The UUP rebellion has seen it accused of playing politics with the peace process, but the party has accused government of trying to bully and blackmail it into signing-up to the deal brokered by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin.
The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) faced pressure from the British government, from other Stormont politicians, plus past and present US administrations who called on the party to back the devolution of policing and justice powers to the North.
But party leader Reg Empey last night said: "We are prepared to go forward and look to the future, but not under the cosh of all this blackmail and bullying."
Despite reports of a late intervention by former US President George Bush, urging the UUP's political allies in the Conservative Party to use their influence with Empey, the planned 'no vote' will mean that it will now fall to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to push through the measures by voting alongside Sinn Féin.
Yesterday, two separate government opinion polls were unveiled to show major public support for the devolution of the policing powers.
Secretary of State Shaun Woodward said a UUP rejection would fail to block the measures, but would send a divisive signal that would provide succour to violent dissident groups opposed to the peace process.
The Conservatives endorsed the political deal brokered at Hillsborough castle between the DUP and Sinn Féin last month, but their electoral pact with the UUP means they now face the prospect of fighting the general election in the North with a political partner opposed to the agreement.
The Hillsborough deal, signed after nearly two weeks of round-the-clock talks at the Co Down venue, promised delivery of the republican demand for the devolution of policing and justice powers, plus the unionist call for the creation of new systems to oversee loyal order parades.
The agreement was aimed at providing greater stability to the power-sharing administration, avoiding a threatened collapse in the institutions after a lengthy political stand-off on the devolution of the powers.
The UUP was accused of electioneering on the issue in a bid to put its unionist rivals, the DUP, under pressure, though the party strenuously denies the allegation.
Sinn Féin was scathing in its attacks on the Ulster Unionists and it was claimed a meeting between the two parties yesterday lasted only three minutes after angry exchanges.
While Sinn Féin and the DUP have the electoral strength to push the vote through, a rejection from the UUP will deprive them of the unanimous support they have sought.
Sinn Féin junior minister Gerry Kelly said: "I have to say I have been bemused at the position of the UUP, who seem to be playing crude politics with, I think, everybody's future.
"I think the overwhelming majority of people want this (devolution of the powers) to happen. I think it's going to happen tomorrow and we are delighted to be at this point."
Asked if he feared the DUP might feel pressurised by the refusal of fellow unionists to back the deal, he said: "The DUP came to an agreement at Hillsborough, so I expect that they will vote for this."
DUP leader Peter Robinson repeated yesterday that he believed the Hillsborough agreement represented a good deal for unionism, but senior members of his party are said to be sceptical.
Alliance leader David Ford said that if the Ulster Unionists failed to back the Hillsborough deal in today's vote, the Conservative Party should end its link with the party.
Mr Ford said: "If the UUP vote no on the agreement then the Tories face no option but to end the link with them to save what credibility they have left on Northern Ireland.
"If the Tories allow this sham marriage to continue after a no vote, they will demonstrate a total lack of principle and leadership."
Meanwhile, the British government repeated its threat to withdraw the £800m (€880.95m) package it has tabled to fund devolution, if the proposals are not passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly as agreed.
The additional funds for the new Department of Justice will only be available, they confirmed, on the completion of devolution with the transfer of policing and justice powers from Westminster to Stormont.
A Northern Ireland Office spokesman added: "The Prime Minister made it clear in the House of Commons on February 8, 2010 when he said that '...the proposals for a financial settlement worth an additional £800m (€880.95m) to underpin the new Department of Justice (will) be available only if and when the parties decided to take the historic step of requesting the transfer of policing and justice powers'.
"Neither the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) nor the [British] government will take risks with security and a ring-fenced additional £28.7m (€31.6m)was made available last year and £37.4m (€41.2m) next year as requested by the Chief Constable."
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson confirmed that Mr Bush had had “a very constructive and friendly conversation” with Conservative leader David Cameron.
However, he said it was not for the Conservatives to tell their Ulster Unionist allies how to vote.
“At national level we support devolution of policing but we are not in a position – it doesn’t matter how eminent the people are who put pressure on us - we are not in a position to order the Ulster Unionist Party around,” he told the BBC Radio 4 'Today' programme.
“However much we, at national level, would like to see policing devolved, the detail has to be worked out the four parties that constitute the coalition.
“We are not in a position to order local parties around. That is not the spirit of devolution.”