Belfast Telegraph

Stormont talks to go on into night

Stormont's leaders are locked in negotiations to hammer out a new political deal in Northern Ireland as a final-day deadline edges closer.

Talks between the five Executive parties and the UK and Irish governments are expected to stretch late into the night at Stormont Castle, and potentially through to the early hours.

The participants acknowledge the 11-week process will formally end at the close of this round of discussions, with or without agreement.

Stormont's First Minister Peter Robinson said the quest to strike a deal was set to go "down to the wire".

"This is the day decisions have to be taken, whether that rolls into the early hours or not," said the Democratic Unionist leader.

"There is no tomorrow as far as this deal is concerned."

He added: "I think there is a real chance for us to do the job but it does require all of us to apply ourselves and at the end of the day it will require all of us to stretch ourselves."

The parties are examining a revised financial offer from Prime Minister David Cameron that could pave the way for an agreement.

Sinn Fein negotiator Conor Murphy struck a relatively upbeat note as he assessed the chances of progress.

"We came here 10 weeks ago trying to hammer out a deal, we are here today still trying to hammer out that deal, so we have to be optimistic, we are not naive about the challenges that are facing us, these are significant issues," said the Newry and Armagh MP.

"I think there is a sense of common purpose among the parties, not on every position but on a willingness to try and find something we can all live with."

Negotiations are currently focused on a new financial package proposed by Mr Cameron.

Earlier this month the Prime Minister tabled proposals that he said would have given Stormont access to an extra £1 billion of spending powers.

Last week, the five Executive parties made a counter-bid, requesting £2 billion-plus of extra funding and loan access over the next decade that, they claimed, would help settle budgetary problems facing the power-sharing administration, particularly the impasse over non-implementation of welfare reforms.

As anticipated, Mr Cameron's revised offer falls somewhere in between those two positions.

Mr Robinson said further clarification was needed from the Government on the details of the new proposals.

But he added: "The offer is an improved offer."

Mr Murphy also said the figures would need further analysis, insisting the "devil was in the detail".

While the region's politicians have agreed a joint position on finances, consensus is still proving elusive on other destabilising wrangles on the talks agenda, such as those on flags, parades, the legacy of the past and the structures of Stormont.

Earlier, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, who is chairing negotiations at Stormont House, said any new financial support from the Government would be forthcoming only if progress was achieved on all the issues on the agenda.

Ms Villiers also said she was not prepared to let the talks drift into tomorrow.

She said "seven or eight" points of disagreement still needed to be bridged.

"It could be a very long day but I think it is very important that we all seek to grasp this opportunity," she said.

The Irish Republic's foreign affairs minister Charlie Flanagan said: "The final day of talks will build on the significant progress made last week with a view to achieving agreement before Christmas."

The financial proposal from the Stormont parties essentially addressed long-standing nationalist concerns over introducing the Government's welfare policies in Northern Ireland by establishing a significant "cushion" fund, drawn from the Executive's budget, to support those hardest-hit by the changes to the benefits system.

It is understood the package put to Mr Cameron by the five parties envisages Treasury penalties for delayed implementation of welfare reform being waived; increased borrowing powers to fund a civil service voluntary redundancy scheme; and a multimillion-pound Government contribution to fund new mechanisms to investigate the legacy of the Troubles.

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