DUP poised for ministers' imminent return to Stormont Executive seats
DUP ministers could be back in government within days as the talks move into a crunch phase and American involvement grows nearer.
Barring setbacks, Senator Gary Hart is expected here within the next fortnight. There is also speculation that the talks will continue into the first week of November, despite the fact that the Prime Minister set a deadline of the end of this month.
Yesterday, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams predicted that the talks are only just starting now though they officially commenced in September.
"Meaningful negotiations have yet to get under way due to the lack of engagement or leadership by the British Government and unionist political leaders," he said.
Behind the scenes there has been contact between Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson on reaching a common approach. This became clear when they called a meeting of party leaders at short notice last Tuesday.
One senior figure said: "When we got there the First and Deputy First ministers seemed at ease. They wanted ideas on money they could ask London for but which would not be regarded as subsidising a more expensive welfare system."
One major sticking point is that Sinn Fein and the SDLP have refused to apply welfare reforms passed in London for the rest of the UK.
As a result the Treasury are claiming the overspend back. The two big parties are now looking at legacy items, like mental health and trauma from the Troubles era, which would set us aside from other UK regions and boost our budget.
That all depends on the outcome of the report of the paramilitary assessment panel. The DUP expects it tomorrow or Thursday. The party wants to see whether the report accuses the IRA of importing weapons, recruiting or training and racketeering.
If the report says that the IRA is doing any of these things then it will be very hard for the DUP to continue in government or in talks. However the expectation is that it will be enough of an improvement to begin returning their ministers to government. They are likely to demand further reports and security action against paramilitary structures and this could delay their return for a matter of days.
Mike Nesbitt pledged that his UUP party would stay in the talks until the end but will not necessarily support the outcome.
"We want to stay in and argue our case but obviously we won't automatically be voting in favour of what is agreed if our views aren't reflected in it," he said.
The protest started following the murder of Kevin McGuigan in August, something which the PSNI says was carried out by IRA members cooperating with criminals. When it was unable to get a suspension or adjournment of the Assembly the DUP said it would withdraw its ministers and reappoint them briefly every week to ensure that other parties do not get the posts.
The 'in-out' strategy is a serious embarrassment to the DUP, especially in health where there is a crisis and their minister Simon Hamilton is only in office for a few hours a week.
Currently the only DUP minister is Arlene Foster who is acting First Minister and Finance Minister.
She has said that she was kept in post in Finance to prevent nationalist ministers spending money without agreement. She described anyone who would do this as a "rogue" or "renegade".
Neither of the big parties can expect much comfort or support from their smaller rivals.
The SDLP is already criticising a draft bill on dealing with the past claiming it offers too many protections to British forces under Official Secrecy.
Henry McDonald, Pages 22&23