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Sinn Fein: Belfast talks over, new pact possible

DUBLIN — The Irish Catholic party Sinn Fein halted marathon negotiations to save Northern Ireland's power-sharing government on Thursday and said it's now up to the Protestant side to accept a compromise deal.

Sinn Fein negotiator Gerry Kelly told reporters that the talks — begun Jan. 25 under the direction of the British and Irish governments — "have come to a conclusion. And our negotiating team believe we have the basis for moving the whole thing forward."

Sinn Fein is threatening to withdraw from Northern Ireland's government — collapsing the Catholic-Protestant coalition at the heart of the region's 1998 peace accord — unless Protestant politicians stop blocking plans for a new justice department that would oversee the courts and police in the British territory.

The major Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists, declined to comment.

Democratic Unionist lawmakers are badly divided on whether to cut a new deal with Sinn Fein now, partly because a British general election is imminent — and they could lose Protestant votes to harder-line politicians if they offer too many concessions to Sinn Fein.

Northern Ireland power-sharing was supposed to consign to history a conflict that has claimed 3,700 lives since the late 1960s.

Peace has prevailed thanks to 1990s cease-fires and more recent disarmament by the province's major outlawed groups. But the aim of uniting Northern Ireland's 1.8 million residents through a unity government has proved a titanic struggle.

The IRA-linked Sinn Fein has demanded that Britain transfer its control over law-and-order issues to a new locally run justice department. The British, Irish and U.S. governments all back the idea, arguing this would boost Catholic support for the police and criminal justice system.

But the Democratic Unionists — loathe to let any former IRA commanders have a role in administering justice — have vetoed the move for months.

The Democratic Unionists now demand, in exchange for dropping their veto, that Sinn Fein give hard-line Protestant groups greater leeway to march once again past Sinn Fein power bases. Those summertime parades triggered riots in the mid-1990s.