Peter Robinson welcomes 'serious' welfare reform summer talks with Sinn Fein
Northern Ireland's First Minister has indicated progress has been made in talks to resolve a row over welfare reform that had put the future of the powersharing administration at stake.
Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson also revealed that his party and Sinn Fein - its main partner in the Stormont Executive - may make a joint bid to the UK Government for additional "financial flexibilities" in a bid to find a way forward.
Introducing the Government's welfare reforms in the region was a key plank of last year's Stormont House political deal which was hailed as settling a range of destabilising disputes in the five party Executive.
But the ongoing failure to roll out those changes to the benefits system - due to a Sinn Fein backed veto - has put all other elements of the Stormont House Agreement under threat and, as a consequence, has left the Executive facing an unsustainable financial blackhole in excess of £600 million.
Earlier in the summer, a breakthrough looked unlikely, but Mr Robinson has given a relatively positive assessment of high level talks between his party and Sinn Fein that have been going on over the last two months
"We've had talks and Sinn Fein have taken those talks seriously," he said.
"(Sinn Fein's) Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Conor Murphy have all been involved in the discussions.
"(The DUP's) Nigel Dodds, Arlene Foster and myself have been involved in it - those talks have gone over the summer."
Mr Robinson has been fiercely critical of Sinn Fein's stance on welfare since the republican party withdrew its support for Assembly legislation in a shock move in March.
But his tone appeared more conciliatory.
"The indications are they want to resolve these matters," he said.
"I think time will tell whether there is sufficient reality as to what is achievable to resolve these matters."
While initially voicing support for the overall Stormont House Agreement, Sinn Fein later withdrew backing for the welfare reform section - claiming proposed Executive-funded top-up schemes for claimants were not as comprehensive as they envisaged.
The republican party has insisted the root of the problem is the Conservative Government's "austerity agenda".
Mr Robinson said the summer talks had focused on remodelling the top-up schemes to factor in further cuts to welfare announced in Chancellor George Osborne's July budget.
He said ways to manage further departmental cuts flowing from the budget had also been considered during negotiations.
The Stormont House Agreement includes a £2 billion financial package from the Government, the majority in the form of increased borrowing flexibilities.
Mr Robinson said obtaining further flexibilities from Treasury may be the key to finally implementing the Stormont House package.
"I think there are some flexibilities that the Government could offer us which would make it a lot easier for us to control our budget and to stay within our spending totals," he said.
Be he said an agreed approach from the Executive was vital before making such a request to London.
"I think it would be worthless going to the Government asking for flexibilities or for more money unless, at the same time, we were saying to them 'We have agreed all the other issues, this is how we are moving forward, and these are the final pieces of the jigsaw that are necessary and you have a role to play'," he said.
The DUP leader said the fate of powersharing ultimately depended on whether local parties were prepared to take hard decisions.
"It is a very tight fiscal position," he said.
"There is hardship involved in it and governments don't have the role of decision-taking just to be applauded or to take the popular decisions - there are times when government is tough.
"This is one of those times and it is up to parties to be sufficiently mature to step up to the plate and take those hard decisions."