New push to break Stormont deadlock
Stormont parties have engaged in a final day of political negotiations before Prime Minister David Cameron and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny arrive to take the helm of negotiations.
The UK and Irish premiers will travel to Belfast tomorrow to lead what is set to be an intensive round of exchanges in a last ditch bid to break the deadlock over a series of disputes causing gridlock in the power-sharing administration.
A long night of talks is anticipated tomorrow with further discussions scheduled for Friday as Mr Cameron and Mr Kenny add their weight to efforts to get a deal over the line.
As well as long standing peace process wrangles over flags, parades and the toxic legacy of the past, the five parties in the power-sharing coalition are trying to reach consensus on budgetary problems facing the devolved institutions, particularly the impasse over the non-implementation of the UK government's welfare reforms in Northern Ireland. The structures and governance arrangements at Stormont are also on the agenda.
Stormont's Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness have both set the weekend as an effective deadline for a deal. Both men have conceded the chances of securing agreement after Christmas would be limited due to the inevitable hardening of political positions in the run up to the UK general election.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers cancelled her scheduled appearance in the House of Commons for Northern Ireland Questions today to remain in Belfast to take part in the talks, which are now in their ninth week. Northern Ireland Office minister Andrew Murrison filled in for Ms Villiers at Westminster.
As Mr Cameron prepared to travel to Northern Ireland, victims of the Troubles descended on Downing Street to highlight their call for a comprehensive agreement on the past.
Shoes belonging to victims of the Troubles were lined along Whitehall in London as part of the "In their footsteps" campaign to tell the stories of those killed or seriously injured in the conflict.
There appears to be a degree of optimism that a deal on new mechanisms to address the historical legacy is close, but other issues, such as the welfare region logjam, are still a long way off resolution.
SDLP Assembly member and negotiator Alban Maginness said an all-encompassing agreement on all the issues was needed.
"The SDLP are in the talks to the very end and that is our commitment," he said.
"We will exhaust every means to try to reach a successful and comprehensive conclusion to these talks.
"The SDLP want substance not spin. The SDLP do not want fancy photographs without delivery on the future of the political system, Assembly and Executive.
"The focus must continue to be the outstanding issues that have been clearly identified and I believe that the Prime Minister and Taoiseach will focus on all of these issues when they visit tomorrow."
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt expressed concern that the smaller parties were being left out of the loop on budgetary discussions, alleging the DUP and Sinn Fein were negotiating between themselves on those issues.
"All the Executive parties should be included in discussions around the budget," he said.
"If not, the difficulty will be all the ministers will start squabbling over how each minister is delivering his or her portion of cuts - and possibly even pursuing each other in court.
"There should be a collective agreement in the Executive to put criteria in place against which cuts are judged."
DUP negotiator Jeffrey Donaldson said failure to agree would threaten the survival of the institutions at Stormont.
But he said his party was not planning for failure.
"We have made very clear if the talks can't reach agreement, particularly on the budgetary issues, which are critical to the survival of any government, the prospects do not look good for sustaining the institutions at Stormont in the short term," he said.
"We are not planning for failure, we are planning for success. We are working night and day to close the gap and resolve the issues. The budgetary issues are absolutely critical, if we can't get the budget right it is impossible to deliver the other elements of any agreement."
Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy said the opportunity to get an agreement must be seized.
"There is still substantial work to be done," he said. "The Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister need to contribute in a meaningful and substantial way to resolving the difficulties facing the political process.
"The British government in particular is a key player in these talks. They have created many of the problems and need to provide solutions.
"We need a comprehensive agreement on all the issues in the talks."
Alliance party negotiator Stephen Farry also stressed a need for an all encompassing deal.
"In recent weeks there has been much progress as the process has intensified, however the success of the talks should be judged on whether the deal is comprehensive," he said.
"It must be more than just agreement around a few issues on our budget, welfare reform and the past.
"I would caution the parties against seeking a lowest common denominator deal to deliver a short term financial fix, but not address the big political issues that are holding Northern Ireland back from becoming a normal, stable society, with politics that delivers for people, rather than politicians. Cynicism of politics will only increase if we don't have a comprehensive deal.
"Failure to agree on all the issues will only result in us having to return to another set of talks next autumn."