LONDON – British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Wednesday that he had offered a financial package to Northern Ireland's political leaders to take control of their courts and police, a key step in the region's decade-old peace agreement.
Brown said the package follows a new round of talks aimed at breaking a deadlock on the region taking over law and order responsibilities from London.
Catholic leaders have long rejected British control of law enforcement and justice in Northern Ireland. But agreeing with Protestants on how the region's power-sharing government should take on the role has proved problematic.
Britain is offering about $1.3 billion to the political leaders to set up a new Justice Department.
"I hope that when the leaders of the Northern Ireland parties take back these proposals to their parties they will find that they command support," Brown told the House of Commons.
Northern Ireland leaders will debate the plans before deciding whether to approve the devolution of policing and justice powers.
The governments of Britain, Ireland and the United States suggest that transferring law-and-order powers to Belfast will strengthen the coalition and isolate Irish Republican Army dissidents, who are scheming to disrupt power-sharing.
Dissidents shot to death two British soldiers and a policeman earlier this year, the first such killings since 1998.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used a visit to Northern Ireland last week to urge rival leaders to cooperate. She said taking control of justice duties would be the most effective deterrent to the "thuggish tactics and destructive ambitions" of dissident IRA members.
"The publication today by the British government of a generous financial package for devolved policing and justice is a major step forward," said Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin.
Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson, who leads both the power-sharing administration and the Democratic Unionist Party, had insisted that Northern Ireland couldn't take over the roles without hundreds of millions of extra dollars in support from Britain.
Sinn Fein, Robinson's power sharing partner, has accused him of using money demands — at a time of financial crisis and deep British deficits — as a delaying tactic because he opposes Sinn Fein influence in oversight of the justice system.
Under Brown's plans, Britain will gift four former military bases to Northern Ireland, help out with police pensions and underwrite millions of dollars per year to pay claims for hearing loss being mounted by police officers.