Bid to broker Stormont deal ongoing
Crunch negotiations involving the UK and Irish prime ministers and Northern Ireland's political leaders have stretched long into the night in a bid to broker a deal on Stormont logjams.
The intensive round of talks in Belfast, which began in the early afternoon, continued through the day without any sign of an imminent breakthrough on the disputes that continue to destabilise the powersharing administration.
Prime Minister David Cameron and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny have cleared their diaries through to tomorrow afternoon in a bid to find a resolution.
The discussions are anticipated to break up at some point through the night and resume in the morning.
The two premiers travelled to Belfast as the process, now in its ninth week, built toward conclusion.
As well as long-standing disputes over flags, parades and the toxic legacy of the past, the five parties in the power-sharing coalition are trying to achieve consensus on budgetary problems facing the devolved institutions, particularly the impasse over the non-implementation of the UK Government's welfare reforms in Northern Ireland.
The structures and governance arrangements at Stormont are also on the agenda.
But the most pressing issue is the budgetary situation.
Ministers in Belfast have already had to ask for an emergency £100 million loan from the Treasury to balance their books this financial year, and if a deal on welfare reform is not agreed they will face around £200 million of Government penalties for non-implementation.
As it is unlikely the administration would be able to absorb such a financial burden, the future of the devolved Executive effectively depends on a resolution to the welfare reform.
The Prime Minister sounded an optimistic note as he arrived at Stormont House to begin discussions earlier.
"We have got to demonstrate we can resolve these issues," he said.
"The people inside this room will be discussing and talking about them but the people outside the room, they are the people that matter. They want to see their politicians deliver."
Mr Kenny said: "We do hope, during the course of discussions today, possibly tomorrow, to make progress.
"Hopefully we can reach a conclusion on a number of matters that are important for Northern Ireland and for the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Government in the Republic."
This evening the Democratic Unionists warned a deal was still a long way off.
DUP negotiator Jeffrey Donaldson downplayed the chances of an agreement materialising within the next 24 hours.
"I think there is still a long way to go on this one, there are substantial issues to be resolved but we are here to try to achieve an outcome," Lagan Valley MP Mr Donaldson said outside the talks venue at Stormont House.
"I don't think anyone should get too excited about the prospect of an agreement within the next 24 hours, having said that we will do our best to close the gaps where they exist."
He added: "We are prepared to come back here next week if it is clear that progress can be made to resolve the outstanding issues."
Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said the onus was on Mr Cameron to stump up extra funding to address problems he insisted were particular to the region.
Flanked by party president Gerry Adams as he arrived at the talks, Mr McGuinness said all five Executive parties were in agreement that the UK Government had to make more of a contribution financially to Stormont.
"We have reached agreement on what this British Government needs to do in budgetary terms," he said.
"We are going, through the course of this negotiation, to make the case - this place here is different, this is not the north of England, this is not London, this isn't Scotland and this isn't Wales.
"We are a society emerging from conflict and legacy, all of that has posed huge problems for our Executive, not least in terms of how we bring our community together, how we build a united community, how we increase sharing in education, how we deal with the whole reconciliation process - special problems that aren't faced by any other region in these islands."
Mr Donaldson said a deal on the budget is vital.
"The other things can't be delivered without resolving the financial question," he said.
He said if an agreement is not reached Stormont would collapse, resulting in a return to direct rule and, with it, the likely imposition of policies the Executive has so far resisted, such as water charges.
"What's the alternative (to an agreement) - the alternative is this place comes crashing down," he said.