After months of talks, Belfast leaders strike a deal

Northern Ireland leaders reached agreement to sustain their troubled Catholic-Protestant government Tuesday following all-night talks in Belfast.

Peter Morrison/AP
Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson speaks to the media at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014.

Northern Ireland leaders reached agreement to sustain their troubled Catholic-Protestant government Tuesday following all-night Belfast talks that reduced some negotiators to bleary-eyed exhaustion.

British Prime Minister David Cameron in London heralded a deal that became possible when his government offered an extra 2 billion pounds ($3.2 billion) over the coming decade to Northern Ireland.

Cameron said the financial boost, largely loans from the British Treasury, "opens the way for more prosperity, stability and economic security for Northern Ireland."

It will allow Northern Ireland to avoid cutting welfare payments as sharply as in the rest of the United Kingdom. Sinn Fein, the major Irish nationalist party representing the Catholic minority, had thrown power-sharing into turmoil over the past year by refusing to enact London-ordered cuts — and said Cameron's offer had vindicated its stubborn stand.

"Sinn Fein as a party has a duty and responsibility to stand up for the most disadvantaged and disabled people in our society," said Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, the former Irish Republican Army commander who since 2007 has jointly led the government alongside British Protestant politicians.

Reflecting a giddy mood after a 30-hour negotiating marathon, McGuinness cracked jokes about how his fellow IRA veteran and Sinn Fein negotiator, Gerry Kelly, had ended up snoring away in his office.

"Has anybody got a disposable razor?" McGuinness asked journalists, smiling as he rubbed his stubbly chin.

The British and Irish governments jointly presented a 75-point plan for progress to local leaders Tuesday afternoon at Stormont, the power-sharing center in east Belfast. It represented all that could be agreed following 11 weeks of negotiations.

All five parties in Northern Ireland's coalition officially reserved judgment but signaled that formal support was inevitable once their party executive boards could meet. Crucially the major Protestant-backed party, the Democratic Unionists, lauded the package as better than expected.

"On the eve of Christmas Eve, Northern Ireland stands in a much better place today than it did yesterday," said Democratic Unionist deputy leader Nigel Dodds. "The budget catastrophe that was coming full speed toward all of us has been averted."

Failure would have meant that the Northern Ireland Assembly was dissolved and Britain would have resumed sole responsibility for running the government.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry both praised the power-sharing deal.

In a statement issued while he is vacationing in Hawaii, Obama congratulated "all the leaders involved who, once again, have shown that when there is a will and the courage to overcome the issues that have divided the people of Northern Ireland, there is a way to succeed for the benefit of all."

Obama said he is looking forward to the agreement being ratified and "the continued advancement of a peace process that is leading to a better future for the people of Northern Ireland."

Kerry pledged "America's full political support for the new arrangements."

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