David Cameron and Enda Kenny to 'clear their diaries' to join all-party political talks in Northern Ireland
Prime Minister David Cameron and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny are set to "clear their diaries" to participate in crunch political talks in Northern Ireland next week.
The high level negotiations in Belfast are seen as a last ditch bid to secure a deal on a range of destablising impasses at Stormont ahead of an effective Christmas deadline.
Mr Kenny today outlined his and Mr Cameron's intention to become more directly involved in the process.
"I expect to be back here in Northern Ireland next week with the Prime Minister and hopefully the possibilities that are now on the table can be moved forward to an acceptable conclusion," he said.
The talks, which began eight weeks ago, are wrestling with a range of thorny disputes that continue to hold back progress in Northern Ireland.
As well as long-standing peace process wrangles over flags, parades and the legacy of the past, the negotiations are also trying to resolve budgetary problems, including the vexed issue of welfare reform.
Mr Kenny and Irish deputy premier Tanaiste Joan Burton today joined Stormont's First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness for the bi-annual North South Ministerial Council meeting in Armagh.
Irish Foreign Affairs minister Charlie Flanagan, who was also at the summit, said next week was "crucial" to the fate of the talks.
"I expect that the British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach will have their diaries cleared towards the end of next week and I believe it is incumbent to ensure, in rugby parlance, that we can bring matters over the line," he said.
Mr McGuinness said Mr Cameron had to be a "player" in the talks and not just a "facilitator", insisting the UK Government's "austerity agenda" was one of the main causes of Stormont's problems.
"When David Cameron comes, David Cameron comes as a player not as a facilitator," he said.
"I certainly give my commitment and the commitment of our negotiating team to roll up our sleeves but when David comes he is going to have to roll up his sleeves also."
The stakes in the talks were raised earlier this week when Chancellor George Osborne said he was willing to accede to a long-standing Stormont demand to devolve corporation tax powers - but only if progress was made in the political negotiations, particularly on budgetary matters.
Essentially, that means Stormont will need to resolve the welfare reform dispute for the tax power to be transferred from Westminster.
The five-party Executive will face around £200 million in Treasury penalties over the next two years if it fails to introduce the Government's controversial changes to the benefits system, a financial burden that would undoubtedly threaten the future viability of the institutions in Belfast.
Sinn Fein has set its face against implementation, insisting the policies will hit the most vulnerable hardest. The structures of the mandatory coalition mean the republican party has an effective veto on the issue.
Sinn Fein's partners in government, the Democratic Unionists, have also raised serious concerns about the reforms but insist they have negotiated key flexibilities from the Government in London.
In regard to budgetary matters, Mr McGuinness said his main dispute was not with DUP leader Mr Robinson.
"I am in dispute, but it's not with Peter. I am in dispute with the British Government and the strategy they have deployed in failing thus far to recognise the very special pressures and circumstances that exist in the north of Ireland which do not exist in Scotland, Wales, London or the north of England," he said.
One of the proposals emerging from the talks is the possibility of a special peace fund for Northern Ireland - a pot into which the British, Irish and US governments may all be asked to contribute, as well as Europe.
Mr Robinson said the next 10 days were key.
"I believe if we have not broken the back of the process in that period of time it will be very difficult for it to be done before Christmas and I think everybody around here agrees that if it is not done before Christmas it will not be done before the UK general election."
He added: "I do believe that it is necessary for us to intensify to a level that has not yet occurred the talks process that presently exists."
To date the talks have been facilitated by Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers.
As the cross-border ministerial summit took place in Armagh, the negotiations continued at Stormont House in Belfast.
At their close, Ms Villiers said: "We've now concluded the eighth week of talks, which saw a very significant development with the Chancellor committing to legislate to devolve corporation tax rate-setting powers if the parties can agree a credible course to put Executive finances on a sustainable footing.
"This is very good news for Northern Ireland and it makes it more important than ever that these talks result in an agreement. The clock is ticking. If we are going to get legislation through before the general election, it needs to be introduced into Parliament in the next couple of weeks. We should not let this chance slip through our fingers.
"Over the past week there has been encouraging input by all participants, but there still remains much to be done. I recognise that we are working through some extremely sensitive issues, but it is imperative that all the parties continue to engage positively in the interests of bringing about stable and effective government for all in Northern Ireland."
It's our best ever chance to get these powers. The next few weeks are a time for decisiveness, not dithering
Belfast Telegraph Digital