Belfast Telegraph

Opportunity to agree deal 'closing'

The window of opportunity to agree a deal in the Northern Ireland talks is rapidly closing, Ireland's foreign affairs minister said.

Charlie Flanagan said substantial progress must be made during the coming days on breaking the logjam over the devolved powersharing administration's budget and issues left outstanding from the peace process.

He and Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers are chairing five-party negotiations at Stormont.

The largest parties, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, are at odds over welfare reform changes and how to deal with contentious parades, flags and the legacy of past killings.

Mr Flanagan said: "The current window of opportunity to close the gaps on the key outstanding issues and to reach an agreement is rapidly closing.

"Unless we secure resolution on these issues in the coming days, I fear that the prospects for agreement will be greatly diminished in the New Year."

His warning came as senior Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy said unless there was a "dose of realism", inter-party negotiations were going nowhere.

Mr Flanagan added: "I travel to Belfast this week in the knowledge that substantial progress must be made.

"We are determined to do everything that we can to assist the parties to reach an overall agreement.

"We are confident that this sense of determination will be reciprocated by the parties."

On Tuesday, left-leaning Sinn Fein presented a paper on welfare reform rejecting changes put forward by the governments.

In a reference to the Labour Party manifesto of 1983, Mr Kennedy, Stormont's regional development minister, described Sinn Fein's plans as the "second longest suicide note in history".

Republicans are adamantly opposed to benefits reforms imposed by Westminster.

Failure to implement them could cost the devolved ministerial Executive around £200 million in penalties to the block grant, producing dramatic public spending cuts.

The negotiations ended without agreement last Friday despite the presence of David Cameron and his Irish counterpart Enda Kenny.

The Taoiseach has accused Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams of preventing Stormont deputy first minister Martin McGuinness from reaching a deal on welfare, a claim described by Mr McGuinness as "laughable".

Mr Cameron offered the Northern Ireland parties what he said was almost £1 billion of extra spending power.

The DUP and Sinn Fein rejected the offer as not good enough.

DUP enterprise minister Arlene Foster has said the consequences for the political process of not striking a deal could be dire.

Sinn Fein negotiator John O'Dowd insisted his party was standing up for the most vulnerable.

He said a change of attitude from the UK Government was needed if the cross-party talks were to reach a comprehensive agreement.

"The success of these talks depends on David Cameron's Tory government bringing forward realistic proposals for a significant financial package," said Mr O'Dowd.

"His representative, Theresa Villiers, also needs to stop negotiating on behalf of the DUP on the issues of flags, parading and the past.

"The British government is not a neutral broker.

"It is a key player and its year-on-year cuts to the Executive's budget has had a destabilising and negative impact on the political institutions and on frontline public services.

"We need to reach a comprehensive agreement on all the issues which have impacted on the Assembly.

"In terms of welfare, Sinn Fein has made its choice. We make no apologies for standing up for the poor, the unemployed and the most vulnerable in our society.

"We have to ask ourselves what sort of society we want. We in Sinn Fein want a new society and protecting the most vulnerable is a key part of that.

"We are clear on where we stand. It is now over to the British government to play its part in finding solutions."

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