US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pledged investment and political support for Northern Ireland, as its leaders battle to resolve a political standoff threatening the peace process.In a major speech in Belfast, Clinton said Catholics and Protestants have come a long way since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which her husband helped broker but warned they still have some way to travel.”I pledge that the United States will be behind you all the way as you work for peace and stability that lasts,” she said.Clinton was meeting political and business leaders and made the speech to the Northern Ireland Assembly in a bid to defuse a row which has brought the fragile cross-community administration to a standstill.The power-sharing executive took office in May 2007 after elections and a landmark accord between conservative pro-British Protestants and Catholic socialist republicans.But two-and-a-half years later, Northern Ireland’s main parties are at loggerheads over the transfer of police and justice powers from London to Belfast as part of the devolution process.As well as the political tussle, the killings of two soldiers and a policeman earlier this year highlighted the threats posed by paramilitary groups which have not yet renounced violence, Clinton said.”Now they are watching this assembly for signs of uncertainty or internal disagreement,” the US secretary of state told lawmakers in the Stormont Castle seat of the British province’s self-rule assembly.”They want to derail your confidence. And though they are small in number, their thuggish tactics and destructive ambitions threaten the security of every family in Northern Ireland.”But she said: “Moving ahead together with the process will leave them stranded on the wrong side of history.”First Minister Peter Robinson’s Protestant Democratic Unionist Party and the Catholic Sinn Fein of his deputy, Martin McGuinness, agree in principle on the transfer of responsibility for policing, but disagree over the timing and details.Responding to Clinton’s speech, Robinson quipped to reporters: “Make any speech in the Northern Ireland Assembly and nobody walks out, it’s a bit of a triumph. I think she’s accomplished that.”McGuinness, a former Irish Republican Army (IRA) commander, added that the speech was “inspirational” and described Clinton as an “invaluable resource”.The Good Friday Agreement largely ended three decades of violence between Protestants who defend British rule and Republicans who want Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and join the Republic of Ireland to the south.At least 3,500 people were killed during the sectarian conflict led by the IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups, known as the Troubles.In a sign of progress on Sunday, a republican group responsible for dozens of murders during the Troubles, the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), announced it was laying down its arms.Clinton was the highest-ranking foreign government official to address the devolved Northern Ireland parliament, according to officials organising the secretary’s trip.Her husband Bill was heavily involved in the Northern Ireland peace process during his 1993-2001 tenure as US president.After chairing a meeting with Northern Irish and US executives of financial and high-technology firms, Clinton said despite the global economic downturn, Northern Ireland has attracted $US1 billion ($1.11 billion) of investment because of the political progress made so far.Economic vitality in turn “sends a signal that there is a path toward peace”, she said.AFP
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