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Stormont talks: An eleventh week of talking, and still it goes to the wire

By Chris Kilpatrick

Crunch talks continued into the night at Stormont with an emphasis on finance and the past.

Unionists and nationalists had been at loggerheads over investigations into killings and legacy inquests.

The past has proved an obstacle throughout the negotiations and discussions last night were centred on alternative ways to deal with the contentious issue, including the potential setting up of a historical inquiries unit.

If a deal on the past is achieved, Government funding of £150m over five years could be made available.

The Executive parties remained locked in negotiations after the Prime Minister put forward a reduced financial package, said to total £1.5bn in loans and cash.

The package was offered on the condition agreement is found on outstanding issues including welfare, parades, flags, the past and reform of Stormont structures.

First Minister Peter Robinson said he felt "like a marathon runner who, at the end of 20-odd miles, has the stadium in sight".

"There is a real chance to do the job. It does require all of us to apply ourselves and all of us to stretch ourselves," he added.

Ahead of the final round of talks, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers had warned it was make or break time, and that the cash injection was on condition of universal consensus.

Ms Villiers outlined the caveat yesterday morning as the talks process entered its 11th week. The Secretary of State described the offer from the Government as "positive and generous", adding: "The financial offer is conditional on reaching agreement on the broad range of the issues on the table at the talks."

Speaking at lunchtime yesterday, Mr Robinson said he felt some progress had been made. "It is down to the wire," he said."There is a short period of time left to us to reach conclusions. But we are determined, as this is to the benefit of Northern Ireland.

"There is some real money in the present proposal. The offer is an improved offer, but we do need clarification."

Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy agreed that progress had been made but added the "devil was in the detail".

"There are gaps to be closed, there is a sense between the parties and governments that work needs to be done today," he added. "The five parties are determined to secure the best financial package available."

Prime Minister David Cameron had spent the last few days examining a financial proposal from the parties that could settle budgetary problems facing the power-sharing administration, particularly the impasse over welfare reform.

Earlier this month Mr Cameron had tabled proposals that he said would have given Stormont access to an extra £1bn of spending powers. His response to their counter request for £2bn-plus of extra funding and loan access over the next decade was presented to the Executive parties yesterday.

Ms Villiers said she was not prepared to let the talks drift into another day and said they would end, with or without agreement.

She said "seven or eight" points of disagreement still needed to be bridged.

"We have done some intensive work over the weekend. We believe our response is a positive and a generous one but it does obviously also have to reflect the constraints we face, the reality of an extremely difficult fiscal situation and, of course, the need to be fair to all parts of the United Kingdom," she said.

Despite Ms Villiers threat to shut the talks down agreement or no agreement by last night, it's thought they may continue today.

Factfile

The financial proposal from the five Stormont parties addressed long-standing nationalist concerns over the Government's welfare policies by establishing a significant "cushion" fund, drawn from the Executive's budget, to support those hardest-hit by benefits changes. It is understood the package seeks the waiving of Treasury penalties for delayed implementation of welfare reform; increased borrowing powers to fund Civil Service redundancies, and multi-million pound funding for a new unit to investigate the Troubles legacy.

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