by RAY FLEMING

THE obduracy of Protestant Unionist politicians and their communities in Northern Ireland has apparently not been substantially changed by more than ten years of peace that have followed the Good Friday Accord of April 1998 and the functioning of the elected Northern Ireland Assembly and power sharing administration.

The British and Irish governments and the Catholic party Sinn Fein are agreed that one of the final acts of the Accord -- the transfer of responsibility for policing and justice from London to Belfast -- should now take place.

The Democratic Unionist Party says it agrees in principle but is opposed “until the time is right” -- although it cannot say when that will be. The Unionists previously objected because the hand-over would be too costly, so Gordon Brown offered to make 800 million pounds available. Their latest condition is the disbandment of the Parades Commission which rules on the routes of the Unionist Orange Order parades that in the past were often used to provoke Catholic communities -- Sinn Fein says it cannot agree to that.

After three days and two nights of fruitless negotiation this week the two parties now have until tomorrow morning to reach an agreement. They are unlikely to do so; the British and Irish governments will then table their own proposals which will probably propose devolution of police and justice in May. The outcome is difficult to forecast but the alternative of giving the Unionists an open-ended veto over devolution is simply not acceptable.