Sinn Fein Ends Its Boycott of Police in Northern Ireland; Agreement: Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams Yesterday

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Byline: JANE MERRICK

NORTHERN Ireland moved a step closer to power-sharing last night afterSinn Fein ended its 86-year boycott of policing in the province.

Members voted to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland - overcomingone of the final hurdles to restoring the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Tony Blair hailed the move as historic and said Sinn Fein had shown'leadership' by abandoning its long-held opposition to the police.

The vote was a boost for the Prime Minister who is desperately trying tosalvage something positive for his legacy.

It paved the way for elections on March 7, ahead of a planned restoration ofthe Stormont Assembly on March 26 and power-sharing between nationalists andunionists.

Sinn Fein will also take seats on bodies such as the Policing Board andDistrict Policing Partnerships.

It put pressure on Democratic Unionist Party leader Reverend Ian Paisley toconfirm whether he will share a platform in an administration with Sinn Fein.

But unionist leaders cast doubt on whether the vote would translate intonationalists supporting the police against criminals in Belfast.

Delegates at a special conference in Dublin overwhelmingly backed Sinn Feinleader Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness's call for the party to recognise thepolice.

A lengthy six-hour debate of the party's membership was dramatically cut shortas the leadership forced a vote.

Mr Adams described the yes vote as 'one of the most important decisions in therecent history of our country'.

He told members: 'Today you have created the potential to change the politicallandscape further. Its significance will be how we use this decision to moveour struggle forward.

'The decision we have reached is truly historic. We can use this decision toadvance our struggle. …