Belfast Telegraph

McGuinness issues talks ultimatum

All issues on the agenda of cross-party talks in Northern Ireland must be resolved if a political deal is to be struck, Stormont's deputy first minister has insisted.

Martin McGuinness issued what was essentially an "all or nothing" warning as it became clear the vexed negotiations are set to culminate, one way or the other, at the end of this week.

With Prime Minister David Cameron and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny planning to join the talks on Thursday, both Mr McGuinness and First Minister Peter Robinson have set an effective weekend deadline for an agreement to be reached.

The talks, which began nine weeks ago, are wrestling with a range of thorny disputes creating instability at the heart of powersharing.

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 controversial issue of the Assembly's failure to implement the UK government's welfare reform policies.

While progress has apparently been made on a number of issues, others are still mired in deadlock, among them welfare reform.

Mr McGuinness told the Assembly only a comprehensive agreement on all the outstanding matters would be acceptable to the public.

"Any agreement short of a comprehensive agreement would be I think held up to public ridicule," said the Sinn Fein veteran.

Politicians on all sides have conceded a deal would be much harder to reach in the New Year when positions harden ahead of the UK general election.

Mr McGuinness said there would be "little or no chance" of finding agreement after Christmas.

"So it is absolutely vital that we conclude these discussions," he said during Assembly Question Time.

"I would like to see it done by the end of this week, I am aiming to do that. I think the fact that both the Taoiseach and David Cameron have announced they are coming here on Thursday is a very clear indicator that people recognise that we are coming to the crunch in relation to these talks."

The stakes in the talks were raised last 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.

Mr McGuinness reiterated his view that Mr Cameron had to enter the talks as a "player" and not just a "facilitator", insisting he had to be prepared to ease the financial pressures being exerted on the Executive due to the Government's "austerity agenda".

Talks involving Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and delegations of the five Executive parties took place in Stormont House.

That will remain the scene of the encounters as the week builds up to its as yet unclear culmination.

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