Belfast Telegraph

Leaders plead for Ulster agreement

Prime Minister David Cameron and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny have urged Stormont's politicians to strive for agreement as an on-going talks process enters a crucial phase.

The two leaders both acknowledged major issues remain unresolved in the negotiations between the five Executive parties but expressed hope progress could be achieved.

Their statements came ahead of the return to Northern Ireland of US envoy to the talks, former US senator Gary Hart, to add his weight to efforts to break the deadlock.

While no formal deadline has been set to reach agreement, Christmas is seen by many as an effective cut off point, as political positions are anticipated to harden in the New Year as the UK general election looms.

The talks are centred on resolving long-standing impasses over the issues of flags, parades and how Northern Ireland deals with its violent past.

The future of the devolved Stormont Assembly and its failure to implement Westminster welfare reforms is also being negotiated.

Mr Cameron and Mr Kenny are due to travel to Northern Ireland before Christmas.

Today Mr Kenny warned the parties that the window is narrowing for a deal.

"I recognise that complex and difficult issues remain to be addressed," he said.

"However, politics - and political leaders - have to now focus on delivering an agreement for all the people, even if that requires difficult negotiation and compromise."

Mr Kenny added: "The window is narrowing and I urge all the parties to intensify their efforts in the immediate period ahead and seize the opportunity to secure an agreement."

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan and Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers have provided Mr Kenny and Mr Cameron, respectively, with interim reports on the talks two months since they commenced.

Mr Cameron said: "The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has provided me with a report on progress in the cross-party talks. I am pleased that her report indicates progress in those negotiations and that all of the parties have engaged constructively in the process.

"Clearly these are complex and difficult issues, and I recognise the scale of the task that lies ahead. The UK Government will do all it can to support the parties in their efforts to reach agreement and I am satisfied that we have done so thus far.

"I urge the parties to continue in their endeavours and look forward to a further report on progress in the near future."

Earlier last week Ms Villiers made a bleak prediction that there was only a slim chance of a deal.

However, on Friday she gave a more upbeat assessment, claiming that the negotiations between the five main Stormont parties had witnessed a positive turning point.

She stressed an agreement was still a long way off.

Mr Hart is expected to be in Belfast throughout this week.

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