DUBLIN, (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Britain yesterday to give Northern Ireland authority over its justice system to complete a peace process that got a boost when a paramilitary group said it would end violence.
Clinton, who met with Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen in Dublin and holds talks with leaders in Belfast today, said the peace process on the island was a model for other world hot spots — but more work needed to be done.
Fighting between pro-British and Irish nationalist groups killed 3,600 people before a 1998 peace deal that was followed by pledges by the main militant organisations on both sides including the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to disarm.
“It will take the leaders of both communities working together … to make day-to-day governing a reality and I am confident that is within reach,” Clinton told a joint press conference with Cowen.
The fragile balance within the Belfast power-sharing executive that includes former IRA guerrillas and hardline pro-British leaders has been tested by tensions over the timing of devolving policing and justice powers from Westminster.
“The step of devolution for policing and justice is an absolutely essential milestone,” Clinton said. “Clearly, there are questions and some apprehensions but … the parties understand this is a step they must take together.”
The peace process got a further lift yesterday as the paramilitary group the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) said it would end its violent activities.
Together with moves by pro-British militant groups earlier this year to disarm, the INLA announcement showed growing political stability, Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin said.
“Indications from any group who have been involved in violent activity in the North to the effect that they are ceasing such activity, that’s a welcome development,” Martin told reporters ahead of Clinton’s arrival.
The IRA’s political ally Sinn Fein said it welcomed the statement from the INLA, adding that it would be met with some scepticism given the history of the organisation.
“However, if it is followed by the actions that are necessary this is a welcome development,” Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said in a statement.
Underlining the continuing security threat in the UK province, 10 police officers were wounded in a “serious disturbance” involving over 150 people in the county of Armagh south of Belfast in the early hours of yesterday, police said.
They said the crowd attacked a police patrol, smashing the windows of police vehicles and kicking and punching officers, but added that none of the injuries were believed to be serious.
Politically to the left of the IRA, the INLA broke away in 1975 and became one of the most ruthless Republican guerrilla groups killing former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s aide Airey Neave in a 1979 bomb attack in London. The group, which had a history of violent in-fighting, called a ceasefire in 1998, but an independent report in 2007 said that while activity was at a low level it remained a threat due to its involvement in serious crimes.
The INLA, like most other dissident groups, has been linked to criminal activities such as smuggling and drug dealing, and it has used bases in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, especially around Dublin.