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Parties on brink of striking deal

DUP and SF reach accord on welfare with proposals to go before Stormont

By Liam Clarke

Published 13/11/2015

Charlie Flanagan
Charlie Flanagan
Peter Robinson
Mike Nesbitt
David Cameron

Talks in Stormont finally seem to be entering the endgame with the prospect of a DUP/Sinn Fein document being presented to the other parties today or early next week.

Last night Charlie Flanagan, the Irish Foreign Minister, left the talks for an engagement in Dublin to commemorate the Anglo Irish Agreement.

Before leaving he said that "encouraging and steady progress continues to be made" and pledged to return today.

"I encourage all the parties to continue their positive engagement in this important process and remain hopeful that a positive outcome can be achieved," he said.

The Irish government had been keen for the negotiations to be finished in time for an Anglo Irish gathering in Armagh today but that has now been postponed to enable further talks.

Now the plan is to present proposals from the DUP and Sinn Fein to the other parties at the next meeting of the Stormont Executive. It could be today but more likely next week.

The DUP conference is on Saturday, November 21 and Peter Robinson will see it as important to report progress at what may be his last conference as leader.

Mr Robinson, the First Minister, has already said that, of the five Executive parties, the SDLP and Alliance have been positive in talks and want to be involved.

He was more dismissive of the Ulster Unionists, accusing them of "sitting round waiting like vultures to see if there is something they can peck at."

"We want to deal with those who are serious, who want to see a real future for the people of Northern Ireland as we want to move Northern Ireland forward," he said on Wednesday.

Mr Nesbitt accused the DUP of simplifying things and suggested that it could take months to put a deal firmly in place. A central problem is reform of the welfare system, which has been passed in Britain but not here. The result is that we use an older and more expensive system and get fined by the Treasury for doing so - with debt mounting each week.

Mr Nesbitt argued that even if this difficult issue was agreed, and Sinn Fein and the DUP suggest they have agreed it, then it would take months to implement. He argued that there would be the prospect of parties losing their nerve or being put off by new Government cuts.

Last December, Sinn Fein and the SDLP had signed up to welfare reforms but when new cuts were revealed by the Chancellor, they withdrew support.

The plan is to set up a Stormont fund to alleviate welfare hardship and the effect of proposed cuts in tax credits for the working poor. One sticking point is that some of these payments may be taxable or result in a reduction of other benefits. There is an argument with the Treasury about this.

If the paper is supported locally, the next move will be for the Executive parties, or as many as agree, to take it to David Cameron to ask for financial assistance.

The Prime Minister is not keen on giving much, as he feels he offered enough extra spending to sweeten last year's failed deal, so that may take some time.

Sinn Fein will also be pressing him not to use national security to prevent information about the past being revealed.

The Irish government will also be pushed for money, for instance to build the long delayed A5 dual carriageway across the south of the province, and to help in a cross border crime crackdown.

Belfast Telegraph

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