Northern talks set to drag into 10th week

‘Fundamental issues’ remain but Villiers remains ‘hopeful for an agreement’

Stormont’s Parliament Buildings illuminated in red. After a week of intense negotiations, British and Irish Ministers and senior Northern politicians were unable to sign off on a deal. Photograph: PA

Stormont’s Parliament Buildings illuminated in red. After a week of intense negotiations, British and Irish Ministers and senior Northern politicians were unable to sign off on a deal. Photograph: PA

 

Attempts to strike a deal that would stabilise the Northern Executive and Assembly are to enter their 10th week after the British and Irish governments and the North’s five main parties failed to reach agreement on Friday.

After a week of intense negotiations, British and Irish Ministers and senior Northern politicians were unable to sign off on a deal addressing issues such as paramilitarism, welfare reform, and how to uncover some truth for victims of the Troubles.

Contact between the parties is to continue through the weekend but formal talks will not resume at Stormont until Monday. There was optimism at the start of this week that a deal could be concluded this week.

However last night, there were still “gaps to be closed” with Sinn Féin particularly exercised about how the British government might cite national security concerns to prevent disclosure of information about killings in which British state forces were involved.

The North South Ministerial Council meeting that was scheduled for Armagh on Friday was postponed to facilitate the continuation of the talks which were attended again by the Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan, Minister of State Sean Sherlock and Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers.

Mr Flanagan encouraged the parties to continue the talks in a spirit of positive engagement. “Encouraging progress has been made across a range of issues. However, agreement remains to be reached on a number of key issues,” he said.

“With collective commitment and leadership on the part of all involved, a positive outcome can be achieved,” he added.

Northern Secretary Ms Villiers said progress was but some “fundamental issues” remained to be resolved. “We remain hopeful that an agreement can be achieved,” she said.

The DUP Minister of Health Simon Hamilton also expressed confidence a deal would be done next week. The timing for a deal will be important for the DUP and more importantly for its leader and First Minister Peter Robinson because the DUP annual conference is being held next weekend.

There is considerable speculation that if there is agreement next week, Mr Robinson would use the conference to signal when he plans to stand down as DUP leader and First Minister. Failure to reach agreement could be difficult and embarrassing for him in facing party delegates.

Mr Hamilton said there was little doubt that there would be an agreement next week. “The question is how comprehensive that agreement might be both in terms of content and also in terms of how many parties can support that agreement,” he said.

That comment was a reference to some speculation that the Ulster Unionist Party, which withdrew from the Northern Executive following the murder of Belfast republican Kevin McGuigan, might find reason not to support any deal.

Mr Hamilton added: “There are serious issues in terms of paramilitarism that have got us into this situation where we have had this intensive talks process. We have had issues which have bedevilled us in respect of our budget and welfare reform and obviously implementation of the Stormont House Agreement, and we continue to work away on all of those issues.

“I hope we can resolve them very, very quickly and we can have as comprehensive an agreement that we possibly can.”