Belfast Telegraph

Stormont: Talks for restoration of Executive go on... but parties indicate optimism is fading

By Noel McAdam

Talks to restore Stormont will continue over the weekend, with negotiations hitting a number of stumbling blocks.

There was little sign of a breakthrough between the parties and British and Irish Governments.

However, few were fearing a breakdown.

Instead, four of the five main parties - Sinn Fein, SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance - were preparing to lock in today right up to the Monday afternoon deadline for electing a First Minister and Deputy First Minister. The DUP indicated it would have "difficulties" in taking meetings on Sunday.

The biggest stumbling block appeared to be reaching agreement on dealing with the legacy of the Troubles, including long-delayed inquests.

Sinn Fein said there had not been "sufficient movement" from the British Government and warned it could not keep "kicking the can down the road".

But there seemed to be some progress on an Irish Language Act, with parties exchanging confidential papers.

However, DUP sources said the chances of reaching a comprehensive deal which would also include a budget for government departments for the new financial year were "50/50 at best".

Ulster Unionist chief negotiator Tom Elliott said the prospects a deal by the 4pm Monday cut-off point were "limited".

Alliance leader Naomi Long said there was insufficient momentum and the prospects for reaching agreement were "lessening".

This is the first weekend the parties have agreed to continue meetings since the talks began almost three weeks ago.

A government official said today's talks could end up continuing overnight tonight and into tomorrow "if need be".

Yesterday, meetings involving the UUP, SDLP and Alliance were put back a number of times as Sinn Fein appeared to be focussed on discussions with the two governments.

And there was still no sign of a full round-table session involving all the parties, which has still to happen during these set of talks.

Nonetheless, both Secretary of State James Brokenshire and Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan insisted a deal by Monday remains achievable.

Sinn Fein, however, accused the British Government of attempting to delay the legacy issue involving victims of paramilitary and State forces violence.

Senior figures including DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and the party's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill made no public appearances yesterday, underpinning the impression that the meetings may have taken on a deeper intensity. Instead it was left to other Sinn Fein figures such as Conor Murphy, Caral Ni Chuilin, John O'Dowd, Alex Maskey and Declan Kearney.

Mr Brokenshire acknowledged that one of the key matters still to be resolved is legacy.

"We have a duty to survivors and victims to come forward with proposals to deal with the past," he said.

"I'll be working intensively in the coming days to achieve that positive outcome, to see inclusive devolved government restored in Northern Ireland," he added.

Mr Flanagan said: "This is an opportunity to deal with legacy issues once and for all.

"We owe it to the victims, survivors and communities across Northern Ireland.

"It is imperative we reach agreement on Monday.

"Often minds are focused intensively once clocks are ticking loudly and once deadlines are looming."

Meanwhile, the UUP has tabled a paper detailing proposals for "improved governance" and greater transparency in a future Executive - which the party has indicated it may rejoin.

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