Deal on the budget may be reached within days
First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness were continuing talks on a new budget last night amid hopes a deal could be close.
They were returning from an Isle of Man meeting of the British-Irish Council, but officials have continued to press for a final agreement at Stormont.
A deal has yet to be formally closed, but there is speculation a resolution may be reached within days.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams congratulated those involved in the talks, and while stopping short of saying a deal was done, he said he was “hopeful” over the negotiations.
Assembly parties urged caution ahead of a final agreement, but it is believed they are close to a plan that covers the entire four-year budget period, despite concerns that a one-year agreement might have emerged.
Any deal is likely to include a pay freeze for civil servants, which could deliver hundreds of millions in savings, while politicians could argue the move would help avoid job losses.
But the SDLP's Alex Attwood is pushing for the deal to include an £80m four-year scheme to ease the burden of welfare cuts.
The West Belfast MLA said: “I cannot believe the DUP and Sinn Fein — quite apart from not consulting the other parties — intend to present a draft budget to the Executive without any consideration of this fundamental proposal to help the most vulnerable in our community.”
Mr Adams said: “A lot of good work has been done, but I don't want to comment on that, other than to state our very, very firm view that the budget has to reflect the core values of all the representatives here, that is, to protect frontline services, to protect those who are vulnerable in society and to try to establish ways of gathering wealth so that it can be used.
“I commend the work of those who have been very, very diligently working their way through this budget.”
He added: “I am hopeful that that will bear fruit.”
Meanwhile, the Sinn Fein leader rejected unionist claims that his party's role in the Stormont talks was being influenced by electoral concerns in the Republic, where Sinn Fein is opposing tough cuts being imposed by the Fianna Fail-led government.
“That's total nonsense,” Mr Adams said.