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‘Just days left’ for parties to break the policing and justice stalemate

By Brian Rowan and Noel McAdam

The DUP has just days to strike a deal with Sinn Fein over the devolution of policing and justice before the republican party forces an early Assembly election, senior sources involved in the talks warned last night.

Insiders believe this is the week that will “tell the tale” in crisis negotiations between the two parties to work out an agreement on transferring policing powers from London to Belfast.

“You are working on a few days keeping the maximum pressure on,” one source said, adding: “It’s make or break.”

But while republicans may be in a hurry to tie down a deal the DUP last night signalled it was looking at a longer term negotiation plan that would involve other Stormont parties.

In a Sunday Times interview, DUP leader Peter Robinson said he would need the support of Ulster Unionists in reaching any conclusion that there is sufficient community confidence to allow the handover to go ahead.

UUP leader Sir Reg Empey has made clear his support cannot be expected until his party sees the detail of the deal.

DUP Executive minister Edwin Poots, who joined the talks for a period on Friday, said: “We have said that moving forward there must be community confidence and that includes the confidence of the UUP, who we have agreed to have further discussions with in the coming days.”

After a further warning from hardline Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister that the DUP is negotiating with a “gun to its head” — afraid of new elections which Sinn Fein could spark by walking away and shaken by the recent sex scandal which engulfed Peter Robinson’s wife Iris — Mr Poots insisted his party's negotiating position was not weakened.

“We won't be bowled over. There is no gun to our head and we will not be settling for any less than the right deal. The DUP wants to see durable and sustainable devolution where we have control of our own destiny,” he said last night.

Intense negotiations will resume at Stormont today with a growing sense they will still take several days to conclude.

Though the key remains achieving a timetable to switch responsibilities for police, courts and prisons from Westminster, other issues are believed to have widened the discussions which will be headed up by Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness.

There are indications that apart from dealing with parades and the retention of the full-time reserve, the deadlock over local government — which could prevent the planned amalgamation of the present 26 local authorities into 11 — is also in the mix.

“They are working on a more comprehensive deal, so it could take longer,” a senior Government source said.

“Policing and justice remains the main issue but other matters have the potential to maintain the impression people have that the institutions are increasingly unstable.

“The parties realise this is the legacy they are creating and it should be dispelled once and for all, without stumbling from one crisis to the next.”

Signals have also been given that the other main parties — Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Alliance — will become more involved in the talks at Stormont Castle this week, which could further delay an overall conclusion.

It has been suggested Mr Robinson will be formally back as First Minister, expected within five weeks, before a deal is struck.

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein’s clock is ticking as Mr McGuinness briefs his Assembly party this morning.

In the Sunday Times interview Mr Robinson hinted at the extra time needed.

“I think if there is some good faith and people would relax a little, we can get there.”

The DUP does not want to be seen to make a deal under republican pressure.

On Saturday this newspaper quoted a senior party source arguing that the talks need to be taken away from “a deadline type scenario”, out of the “hot house”.

“The Shinners haven’t helped by creating this high wire situation,” he said.

Speaking to this newspaper last night, another senior DUP source said the focus should be on “the issues, not time frames”.

“I don’t know if it (a deal) will be done, but I do know it can be done,” he said.

“There is no issue we face here that is any more difficult than the issues we have dealt with in the past we need to get the deal right.

The source said the DUP did not yet have the “substance” of Sinn Fein’s position on parades.

Sinn Fein has twice postponed a meeting of its leadership, the ard chomhairle, and according to a source would only be able to do so again if “substantial progress” was being made in the behind-closed-doors talks.

“They (the DUP) don’t want to be seen to do it (a deal) under pressure,” another source commented.

“But they are going to have to do it. So, they need to get over it.”

After a briefing at Stormont on Saturday a DUP insider was asked if he believed they would lose people overboard in the event of a deal.

“They have nowhere to swim to,” he said.

There is still a focus on senior sceptics including MPs Gregory Campbell, David Simpson and William McCrea.

But sources observing the talks believe party deputy leader Nigel Dodds is now “more on the side of doing it”, meaning a deal.

But there is a sense that the next few days could well be the last chance to get this deal done in the short term.

The DUP leadership is right — that Sinn Fein does not want to bring down the Assembly.

But in a continuing stalemate republicans could force an early election.

The reading between the lines is that there are just days left to achieve a breakthrough.

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