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Talks to resolve Northern Ireland deadlock continue

The British and Irish premiers will hold a second day of talks today in a bid to rescue Northern Ireland's crisis-hit power-sharing government.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Taoiseach Brian Cowen led negotiations with the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein at Hillsborough Castle, Co Down, on the devolution of policing and justice powers into the early hours of this morning.

They had jetted into the region last night after a last-ditch attempt to secure a compromise between DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson and the Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness failed.

Their dramatic intervention came amid fears republicans could collapse the fragile institutions - forcing a snap assembly election - if the DUP do not agree to a swift transfer of the powers from Westminster.

The two leaders are understood to have cleared their diaries for the coming days in anticipation of intensive exchanges with the rival politicians.

Late last night the two governments were holding private meetings with DUP and Sinn Fein negotiating teams while senior party figures from the Ulster Unionists, the nationalist SDLP and the Alliance Party also arrived at the talks venue to be briefed on progress.

While Sinn Fein said they were still holding out for a firm devolution date, the DUP again insisted they required concessions on how loyalist order parades were managed before they gave the go ahead for the transfer.

The region's largest unionist party did however indicate they would be open to proposals on how to resolve the thorny parades issue.

Sinn Fein minister in the power-sharing government Conor Murphy emerged from the talks insisting that his party was seeking a date for devolution of policing powers and wider agreements that would ensure a true spirit of partnership and equality between republicans and unionists at Stormont.

He said: "We are here clearly to get a date for the transfer of powers on policing and justice. That has been our focus.

"We want to see an agreement here. We want to see the institutions working properly.

"But they can only work properly if we have partners in these institutions who are willing to work them."

His party claimed that within three months of the 2006 St Andrews Agreement that paved the way for the power-sharing government Sinn Fein had fulfilled its obligations by backing the new policing service in Northern Ireland.

He said that three years on, the DUP had yet to fulfil its commitment to allow political responsibility for law and order to be brought within the Assembly.

With the talks ongoing, Mr Murphy said last night the DUP could broker a deal if the political will existed.

"Tonight will test that political will," he said.

DUP minister Arlene Foster said her party had made no commitment to a timeframe for the devolution of policing powers.

The DUP demanded concessions on loyalist order parades and is arguing for the parades commission, which currently adjudicates on controversial marches, to be replaced.

Last night the party indicated that it was willing to negotiate on alternative arrangements.

Ms Foster said: "We are committed to working out and working through the outstanding issues.

"We want to see the devolution of policing and justice powers come. But we want to see it come, so that it comes in a sustainable and durable way."

Northern Ireland Secretary of State Shaun Woodward said last night: "The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach met this afternoon in Downing Street and decided that the time was right to come to Belfast and engage in intensive talks with the party leaders, with Peter Robinson and with Martin McGuinness.

"Those talks are now under way, they will continue this evening and we expect them to continue into tomorrow.

"And we stand, both governments, ready to help the parties here in their talks on policing devolution and those remaining outstanding issues."

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin said the governments were committed to finding an agreed way forward.

He said last night: "It is our intention to go through the night, and we are prepared to stay overnight to ensure that we bring these talks to a conclusion and to get the key issues agreed."

Mr Martin added: "One always has to reflect on the progress that has been made, not just over the last number of months but the last number of years.

"There are difficult issues here to resolve and no one is understating that but it is the governments' assessment that is within the capacity of all parties to arrive at an agreement here, that these issues are capable of resolution.

"That is why the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister are here, they wouldn't be here otherwise."

Sinn Fein junior minister Gerry Kelly briefly emerged from the talks to underline his party's demand for a swift transfer of law and order powers.

"We are here to do the business and we are here to talk about a date for policing and justice and that's what the discussions are about," he said. "I cannot go into detail..."

He revealed that while his party had held discussions with the two governments it had by 10pm yet to hold direct talks with the DUP in Hillsborough.

"We are here, we are talking, we do want to get this sorted out," he added.

DUP minister Sammy Wilson expressed hope last night that a deal could be secured, though he was critical of what he described as the atmosphere of crisis that had developed.

Mr Wilson said: "As far as we are concerned this is a contrived crisis, we don't need to be here tonight.

"There are many things I am sure most people would prefer that the Assembly would get on with the task which it already has competence over and secondly that the parties then would sit down in a responsible way and deal with the issues which are still outstanding to allow devolution of policing and justice to take place.

"That would have been a much better way to have dealt with this issue rather than the way in which Sinn Fein have tried to create this crisis here and of course the instability which is attached to that."

He insisted however that his party was committed to finding a resolution.

Belfast Telegraph


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