Belfast Telegraph

Mood at Stormont Castle remains positive but it's a race against time to secure a pact

By David Dawson

Talks to save power-sharing intensified at Stormont yesterday - but Brexit tensions continued to cast a cloud over the process.

Party negotiators resumed their rounds of meetings with just a week to go until the March 27 deal deadline.

A busy week of tough talking lies ahead on the Stormont hill, with the prospect of direct rule or another election if no breakthrough is reached.

Party teams continue to set out and explore their positions in face-to-face bilateral sessions, designed to chart a way through problems that have destabilised devolution over recent years.

Brexit - one of the main fault-lines in politics here - grabbed the headlines once again yesterday. Downing Street confirmed that the Article 50 process for the UK quitting the European Union will be triggered on Wednesday week, March 29.

Sinn Fein yesterday reiterated its demand for "special designated status for the North within the EU".

SF president Gerry Adams returned to the Stormont talks after having been in the USA for St Patrick's Day events. He issued a challenge to Taoiseach Enda Kenny following the Article 50 date announcement.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to visit Northern Ireland later this week as part of a tour of UK regions for Brexit-related discussions.

It is believed that any meetings with local political leaders will be kept totally separate from the Stormont talks process.

The mood at those talks is being viewed as relatively positive, according to well-placed insiders, although there is no certainty that a deal will be secured.

There is also ongoing speculation that Secretary of State James Brokenshire could find a route to extend the talks past next Monday's deadline.

The process to date has mainly focused on bilaterals between party negotiating teams tackling different areas of contention, such as legacy and Irish language.

NIO officials and Irish government representatives have also been involved in discussions since the talks kicked off a fortnight ago.

Stormont parties meanwhile took part in a round table session yesterday on transparency in the workings of the Executive.

Other areas up for discussion include the delayed Stormont budget for 2017/18 and a Programme for Government, the centrepiece document setting out Executive policy objectives.

A full cross-party plenary session covering all the key talks issues has yet to be held, with Wednesday the likely date for the first of these.

The pace of the negotiations will clearly have to intensify significantly as this week progresses.

Public hostilities between the DUP and Sinn Fein have noticeably cooled since the election at the beginning of this month.

The talks are centred at Stormont Castle - the base for the First and Deputy First Ministers when devolution is operational.

Parliament Buildings - where the Assembly holds it sessions - is relegated to a minor role at present. Gerry Adams said yesterday: "The Taoiseach has previously expressed impatience over the lack of clarity from Britain on Brexit. He now knows the date on which Article 50 will be triggered.

"The clock is ticking, so he needs to act accordingly and stand up for our national interests across the island, at European level, to secure special designated status for the North within the EU."

Sinn Fein's northern leader Michelle O'Neill vowed to deliver the same message to Theresa May.

"The British Government are acting against the interest and the expressed wishes of a cross-community group of people here that want to stay in Europe," she said.

"We will be making that message clear to Theresa May when she is here - apparently she is coming later in the week - we will make this message very clear to her, that this is not good, this is bad news for the people of Ireland."

David Dawson is a journalist and commentator

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