High hopes of deal as North talks continue


TALKS RECOMMENCE at Hillsborough Castle today following a weekend of significant progress and growing hopes of a deal.

One talks insider said “serious work was being done” on Saturday, the sixth day of negotiations on the devolution of justice and other outstanding issues which have divided Sinn Féin and the DUP since the Stormont institutions were revived nearly three years ago.

Another source said the weekend discussions involved “a degree of energy” which prompted hopes of a possible breakthrough to an agreement today.

The talks’ joint chairmen, Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin and Northern Secretary Shaun Woodward, left Hillsborough after close to 100 hours of intense negotiations and announced the parties would take a break yesterday before returning to hopefully clinch a deal today.

They again praised the contribution of all the parties present at Hillsborough, but sources stressed that the bulk of the constructive work done late on Friday and throughout Saturday was done by the DUP and Sinn Féin themselves, involving the two governments.

As they left Hillsborough Castle on Saturday night, Mr Woodward said: “We have made, across six very long days I think, considerable progress. There remains work to be done.”

Standing alongside Mr Martin, he added: “We felt yesterday that significant progress was being made, therefore it was right in the place of those talks happening to allow them to continue their work today.”

Mr Martin agreed, saying of the political parties: “They are engaging, in our view, in a way that is purposeful and with determination to resolve the issues.”

Mr Martin added: “It’s been a very long and very challenging week, and since the Taoiseach and the prime minister arrived here there has been significant and purposeful engagement by all the parties in the North and a determination to resolve the significant difficulties that are there.”

He said they were determined to bring matters to a resolution.

Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy said: “We are maybe getting somewhere now. We have progress made – we are hopeful that we can finish this fairly quickly.

“We are getting towards the point now where negotiations will end.”

Sinn Féin junior Minister Gerry Kelly said the week of talks, which has involved late-night sessions lasting beyond 5am, was by far the longest and most intense discussions involving his party and the DUP since they agreed to share power at Stormont almost three years ago.

DUP Minister Edwin Poots said: “There is considerable advancement; what I said previously was that there would have to be certainty and clarity and there would appear to be greater certainty and clarity than was the case when I was speaking on Thursday night.”

His party colleague Sammy Wilson added: “When a deal is finalised the public will get a chance to debate it.”

He added that both his party and Sinn Féin had had to concede ground to each other, but he declined to outline where either side had given way.

“Everybody has had to be flexible, that is the whole point about negotiations. Negotiations will never be successful if one party thinks they can have everything that they want and another party has to give everything.”

He told the BBC yesterday that getting what he called “breathing space” away from the sense of crisis and from the idea that the two governments would impose their own will in the event of failure had been important.