Belfast Telegraph

Stormont talks: Deadline starts to slide in icy talks

By Liam Clarke

What a difference a day brings.

On Wednesday everyone was predicting that today was the deadline for a deal; Peter Robinson even urged the governments to make this clear. But already it is slipping.

Jeffrey Donaldson the DUP negotiator, said last night: "The timescale is irrelevant except that obviously we want to wrap it up before Christmas."

That could become the end of the year before we are finished.

In the meantime, we are likely to have Senator Gary Hart, the US Special Envoy, back to lend America's weight to the discussions.

Mr Hart told me last month: "If there is any kind of settlement, breakthrough or resolution in the days before Christmas, and I can get over, I will certainly be there to encourage those who are signing the papers.

"That is the least the US Government can do in helping out."

What looks possible, on an optimistic assessment, is that issues over money will be banked so that we have a budget to carry us through till the end of the financial year in April and the Westminster election on May 7.

The pessimistic assessment is, of course that the whole Stormont apparatus will come tumbling down in a matter of weeks.

Then we could expect another Assembly election, probably followed by more negotiations.

Everyone will want to avoid the second option because nobody knows what will follow. It would certainly be an encouragement to the dissidents.

For that reason the British, Irish and US governments will back the DUP and Sinn Fein if they are willing to reach a deal. In practical terms, that means money to ease the cost of transition.

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers handed draft heads of agreement to the local parties yesterday morning.

She was adamant that there was no big cheque coming from London, but that will be taken as a negotiating stance because the parties dare not agree the cuts without some compensation.

David Cameron made it clear he was prepared to discuss money but made no commitment on how much. Sinn Fein presented him with a wish list which one observer said would have taken £1bn to pay for.

If there is to be any solution it has got to be somewhere between Sinn Fein's position and that of Ms Villiers'.

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