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Executive may be close to return

By Noel McAdam

Hopes were rising today of a breakthrough in negotiations between the DUP and Sinn Fein which could allow Stormont Executive meetings to resume.

A behind-closed-doors session tomorrow of the Assembly committee working on the nuts and bolts of the devolution of policing and justice powers is being seen as potentially pivotal.

First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness are to attend the private session following talks with the Prime Minister Gordon Brown last week.

The discussions with Mr Brown — which largely focused on finance, including the significant costs involved in the transfer of policing and justice from Westminster — are being regarded as positive.

And key meetings of the two main parties’ decision-making bodies over the weekend began to look like possible choreography leading to a deal which could see the first Executive meeting in five months possibly taking place in the next two weeks.

The DUP’s executive was briefed on Friday night and Sinn Fein’s ard chomhairle met in Dublin on Saturday to hear an update on the detail of the current state of the talks, which have prevented Executive meetings since June 19.

Speculation over progress increased as the Assembly was today being urged to back an Ulster Unionist motion requiring the Executive to get back to business. Party leader Sir Reg Empey said he hoped the debate will give voters, and the other parties, an opportunity to gauge the extent of the impasse between the DUP and Sinn Fein — and help map out the way forward to a solution.

But the DUP’s Jimmy Spratt, chair of the Assembly and Executive review committee which is meeting the joint First Ministers, said: “Only a few months ago Mr Empey was able to say categorically that the Executive ‘was being held to ransom by Sinn Fein’. Unfortunately it would appear that rather than continuing his focus on where the blame belongs, he has decided now to let republicans off the hook and attack fellow unionists instead.”

One of the main remaining sticking points is believed to be education, with rumours of a more comprehensive examination of academic selection and the curriculum, and other issues involved in the negotiations, such as legislation underpinning the status of the Irish language, could be effectively parked.

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