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Stormont negotiations 'must ramp up in next 48 hours if deal to be done'

By Suzanne Breen

A deal to save power-sharing at Stormont must be reached by Friday and not cobbled together hours before the deadline to form a new Executive runs out on Monday, senior political sources have insisted.

They warned that while a last minute agreement - as Monday's 4pm deadline approaches - might suit Sinn Fein and the DUP, it wouldn't give the other party leaders sufficient time to consult their colleagues and have the deal endorsed internally.

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Alliance leader Naomi Long said last night that unless there was an urgent intensification of negotiations in the next 48 hours, it was hard to see any agreement being reached.

Sinn Fein and DUP sources were reticent about the chances of progress, while the SDLP was optimistic, with the Ulster Unionists more negative.

However, some talks' insiders remained upbeat about a likely deal and said that, on the issue of an Irish Language Act, compromise was possible.

They said the bones of an agreement could involve an Act with capped costs; an Irish language commissioner but with advisory as opposed to judicial powers, and Irish language signs for prominent buildings and landmark sights, but not for all streets across Northern Ireland.

"An Irish Language Act but with a soft focus is a runner," said one source. "It would be to promote the language and to help the wider public become accustomed to seeing it used, rather than to adopt an aggressive approach."

Irish language activists are due to stage a protest at Stormont tomorrow and then to meet all the parties.

While bilateral and trilateral talks will continue today, the parties won't have their first round table session at a leadership level until tomorrow.

Mrs Long said that this delay was hindering a deal. "It's not until round table talks that everyone is forced to look into the whites of each other's eyes and put their cards on the table," she stated.

"In bilateral talks, a party can say one thing to one party and something entirely different to another party. Round table talks stop that and flush people's true positions out."

Mrs Long said that to leave round table talks to the latter half of the third and final week of negotiations was unhelpful.

"We don't even have formally tabled papers from the parties yet," she said. "Unless there is a serious intensification of the process over the next 48 hours, it's difficult to see Monday's deadline being met. A deal still is doable, but we have to focus on the detail urgently."

Mrs Long revealed that no formal discussions had taken place about her party filling the Justice Ministry in the next Executive.

"Alliance needs movement on reforming the petition of concern, legacy issues, integrated education and other matters before we would consider entering the Executive," she added.

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said: "Talks are continuing across a range of issues. Whilst we have constructive engagement, we don't yet have overall agreement on these matters."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: "We are approaching a critical moment where people must begin to get to the bottom of the issues. As Theresa May prepares to trigger Article 50, we need an administration in place to face up to the challenges of Brexit. People want their politicians to find a way through the difficult issues and to form a government."

Sinn Fein's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill said that the British Government's approach was "the biggest stumbling block" to progress.

"We need to see the British Government stepping up to the plate and delivering on the key issues that have been previously agreed. We do not need a new agreement. We need to see implementation of what has been previously agreed," she added.

UUP chief negotiator Tom Elliott said: "While a deal is possible, the chances of one by Monday aren't great. If there has been progress in the talks, we don't see it, although discussions will intensify over the next few days."

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