Belfast Telegraph

Cameron and Kenny push for deal, but mood music is muted in Northern Ireland

By Noel McAdam

The Prime Minister and Executive parties edged closer on a deal to save Stormont last night, although a comprehensive agreement proved elusive.

David Cameron remained overnight in Northern Ireland for a further round of talks today, which could result in a final breakthrough - or breakdown.

He and Taoiseach Enda Kenny were still locked in talks with the five main parties - the DUP, Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance - as crucial decisions on a financial package loomed.

Progress was limited, however, on more divisive issues such as flags and parades, which have been left in limbo for a year since the talks chaired by American diplomat Richard Haass collapsed.

Instead the focus of yesterday's discussions appeared to be mainly on a cash injection from the Government to ease the Assembly's most urgent financial woes, along with a mechanism for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.

There was also speculation that other key issues, including cutting the number of MLAs and reducing government departments, could be kicked into the new year.

The prospect of Mr Cameron and Mr Kenny coming back before Christmas was also not being ruled out.

The Prime Minister arrived at Stormont House, near Parliament Buildings, shortly before 2pm and declared he was optimistic about the outcome of the talks - the most crucial since the devolution of policing and justice in 2010.

As he prepared to chair his first round-table session with the parties, he said: "I think everyone in Northern Ireland wants the same thing; an economy that grows; politics that work and a society that gets stronger.

"We have got to demonstrate we can resolve these issues, but the people outside the room, they are the people that matter. They want to see their politicians deliver."

As the DUP played down the prospect of any early full resolution of the issues on the table, Sinn Fein inisted it was Mr Cameron who would have to demonstrate good faith.

Party President Gerry Adams said it was Mr Cameron who had "stripped billions from the Executive's block grant and his government has failed to acknowledge its responsibilities to the political process".

He continued: "So the British Prime Minister needs to shape up if progress is to be made in these negotiations over the next couple of days."

Senior DUP negotiator Jeffrey Donaldson added: "I think there is still a long way to go, with substantial issues to be resolved. I don't think anyone should get too excited about the prospect of an agreement within the next 24 hours. Having said that, we will do our best to close the gaps where they exist.

"We are prepared to come back here next week if it is clear that progress can be made."

While party sources insisted money was vital to success, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers stressed cash alone would not solve the problems.

She said agreeing a budget was essential to avoid "increasing chaos", but stressed: "The solution to the problems of Northern Ireland cannot be a big cheque from the Exchequer."

Story so far

Prime Minister David Cameron arrived yesterday to chair talks on a cash package to cushion public spending cuts, welfare reform, a reduced Stormont administration and dealing with the past.

Failure could result in the introduction of water charges in Northern Ireland as well as higher household rates.

That was the warning from DUP negotiator Jeffrey Donaldson as the most intensive phase of talks between the main parties finally got underway.

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