Cowen nears deal to halt Executive collapse
TAOISEACH Brian Cowen was last night edging towards brokering a deal to rescue the Northern power-sharing government from collapse.
Mr Cowen and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had prepared a document setting out the various positions on the contentious issues to try to stave off Assembly elections.
The sticking points remained a date for handing over policing powers to Belfast and the refereeing of contentious parades.
A meeting between the Sinn Fein and DUP delegations on the fringes of the talks inside Hillsborough Castle was regarded as crucial to the outcome.
Both parties were aware that details of the deal on the table would emerge, if the talks collapsed, with a risk of them being blamed for the failure to strike a deal.
However, progress was reported after a second day of emergency talks at Hillsborough Castle, which were expected to go into the early hours of this morning.
But Mr Brown's need to be back in London this morning to take prime minister's questions in Westminster placed a greater degree of urgency on the talks last night.
The DUP played down suggestions of a crisis with their leader, Peter Robinson, insisting his party had nothing to fear from the devolution of policing.
But Mr Robinson's conciliatory tone was said to be at odds with the tough line he was adopting inside the meetings.
After 7pm last night, 24 hours after their dramatic arrival in Hillsborough, Mr Cowen and Mr Brown convened round-table talks with all the parties.
These talks were attended by First Minister Mr Robinson and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister -- and the mood was said to be positive.
The plenary session followed a day of draft documents being circulated and amended.
Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin said the talks on devolving policing and justice powers from London to Belfast were "positive and constructive".
"Both governments remain satisfied at the level of engagement by all of the parties and the party leaders and indeed by the participants in the discussions," he said.
"They are determined to see a resolution to this."
The talks centred on a date for the transfer of the powers, likely to be before the British general election in early May, and the continued status of the body that rules on disputed parades.
A greater degree of community engagement could help resolve the question of the adjudication of controversial loyal order parades.
The approach taken in Derry, known as the 'Derry Model', where there was a negotiated solution and a lack of confrontation, was regarded as the potential solution.
Mr Martin said there was a "lot of common ground" between parties on finding local solutions to parades.
Mr Cowen and Mr Brown restarted the talks mid-morning after the first night of negotiations went on until after 3am.
The Taoiseach and prime minister had to clear their diaries for the negotiations.
The regular Tuesday morning cabinet meeting at Government Buildings was chaired by Tanaiste Mary Coughlan, in Mr Cowen's absence, while the British cabinet meeting was postponed.
Mr Robinson said he was hopeful a resolution could be reached. But he also cautioned it was too early to tell if a deal would be made on devolving policing and justice powers.
"It really isn't until the last few minutes or hours that you do get the sense that it can be put together," he said.
"I can't say that there is going to be a deal, we are going to sit at the table. . . until we get the deal.
"The issue of policing and justice has dogged us in the Assembly. It has taken away the focus that we should have on other issues," he added.
Mr Robinson temporarily stood down as First Minister earlier this month after the fallout from the controversy over the affair involving his wife Iris.
The Obama administration is keeping a close eye on the negotiations, with Mr Brown holding a telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday afternoon.