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SF leadership talks bring new hope stalemate may be broken

There were signs last night of possible progress in the talks to secure Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government after Sinn Fein revealed its party leadership had met to discuss the issue.

Sinn Fein confirmed its party executive met at the weekend in Dublin to be briefed by leader Gerry Adams on the state of negotiations with the DUP.

The development comes after the DUP executive met on Friday night to discuss the state of talks aimed at ending the stand-off that has blocked cabinet meetings at Stormont since June.

Sources characterised the weekend developments as a sign that progress was being made, but did not say that a deal had been tied down. Sinn Fein’s party executive was briefed on Saturday by Mr Adams and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein’s Assembly members will meet at Stormont this morning to discuss developments.

The two parties, which dominate the Assembly’s Executive and share the office of First and Deputy First Minister, have been divided on a series of issues including unionist resistance to the immediate devolution of policing and justice powers from Westminster. The parties have been engaged in protracted negotiations.

There has been constant speculation over the state of the behind-the-scenes talks between the parties. Critics claimed that the future of the fledgling government, formed a year and a half ago, has been endangered by the division between the two parties.

Republicans have blocked Executive meetings since June, insisting that the DUP was effectively blocking issues of importance to Sinn Fein and its supporters. The DUP countered that republicans were frustrating the work of government to force their priorities up the political agenda.

Sinn Fein is demanding the transfer of justice powers and points to the St Andrews agreement of 2006 which set May of this year as a target date for the move. The DUP has said it is not bound by any timetable and that it will not move on the issue until it believes the unionist community is ready for the development.

In July the parties agreed that neither of them would take the post of Justice Minister if and when the office was established. The move sparked speculation that the Alliance Party may emerge as an agreed third candidate to take the job.

But the parties are also split on issues such as education reform, the introduction of an Irish language act and the development of the Maze prison site. Leading Protestant and Catholic church figures recently proposed a compromise on plans by Sinn Fein education minister Caitriona Ruane to scrap academic selection.

There have been fears that if a deal cannot be secured, it may require the help of the British and Irish governments.

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