Theresa Villiers warns political leaders: It's 'make your mind up' time
Northern Ireland's leaders have vowed to push for the most comprehensive deal possible amid uncertainty about the breadth of an anticipated agreement to save powersharing at Stormont.
As First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness expressed optimism a widespread settlement could still be achieved in the coming days, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers warned local politicians: "It's make your mind up time."
While there is expectation some form of deal to stabilise the crisis-hit coalition executive will be announced this week, there is doubt whether it will incorporate measures to deal with the toxic legacy of the Troubles.
The uncertainty is due to an on-going impasse involving Sinn Fein and the UK Government over the prospect of some official documents not being disclosed, on national security grounds, to new truth recovery bodies.
Other disputes that have rocked Stormont, including an acute budgetary crisis linked to non-implementation of welfare reforms and the fallout from an IRA murder linked to the Provisional IRA, are set to be addressed in whatever settlement emerges.
As the talks process in Belfast involving the five main Stormont parties and the British and Irish governments entered its tenth week, Mr McGuinness said the next day or two would be "critical".
"I think I fully expect that there will be an agreement, hopefully a comprehensive agreement, before the middle of this week," he said.
The Sinn Fein veteran said there remained "difficulty" over legacy issues.
He said: "The British government are trying to hide behind this label of national security and I think we need to see a resolution of that and I believe the discussions over the course of this day will probably concentrate on that more than anything else.
"In other matters great progress has been made between ourselves and the DUP. This is really a sticking point which revolves around the approach of the British government."
Mr McGuinness said he would be "disappointed" if consensus on legacy could not be reached, but said, if that was not possible, there was a responsibility on politicians to press ahead with other aspects of the agreement.
Mr Robinson said he would also be disappointed if a comprehensive agreement was not struck.
"I am still optimistic and hopefully within the next few days we will be able to make sufficient progress to be able to make an announcement," he said.
The Democratic Unionist leader added: "I think we need to get most comprehensive agreement that is possible. I don't exclude anything from that. I would like to see all of these issues dealt with. I will be disappointed if they can't all be dealt with, but in negotiations you have to reach the maximum degree of consensus that is possible."
Ms Villiers called for a deal to be struck this week.
"We are into week ten, we have had plenty of time to discuss the issues," she said.
"I really do think it is make your mind up time, and we need to get this sorted very soon - over the course of this week."
Ms Villiers, who has chaired 150 meetings in the process, conceded there were still "significant" sticking points around legacy issues but said "genuine progress" had been made on financial matters.
"It is possible that we will get an agreement," Ms Villiers added.
"We continue to discuss all the legacy matters including this question around onward disclosure by the HIU (Historical Investigations Unit). It is very difficult. That continues to be a significant sticking point. We will continue working on it.
"Everyone recognises that we cannot go on with this process indefinitely. We cannot all be sat there on Christmas Eve. It is vitally urgent that the devolved institutions can get back to normal so that we can get through these disputes so that we can get powersharing working again as it was intended to be.
"This continuing deadlock isn't good for any of the parties in the Executive or for the credibility of the devolved institutions themselves."
Northern Ireland Office minister Ben Wallace said the Treasury had been asked for extra money to help police tackle paramilitarism.
Addressing members of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly (Bipa) in Cheltenham, he said: "The Secretary of State is constantly trying with Treasury to get more money for the PSNI."
He said ministers were considering the options for monitoring paramilitary activity.
The Government met with the National Crime Agency (NCA) a couple of weeks ago to discuss paramilitarism and organised crime, he said.
Mr Wallace said: "There is no excuse any more, there is no excuse for paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, I don't believe there ever was."
He added: "We are hopeful that this week above all is the week that we shall finally come together to fulfil the Stormont House Agreement and put right some of the things that have caused us to go into these talks.
"Hopefully this week the bump in the road will subside and we will get on with supporting the devolution settlement.
"If we as the UK Government can support that, Northern Ireland will go from strength to strength."
He said failure of the talks would undermine the case for devolution across the UK.
"They carry the flame for devolution working and it cannot only work in one part of the UK, it needs to show that it can work all over," he said.