Fragile peace on the line after failure to deliver deal
THE North's fragile political process is staring into the abyss after Taoiseach Brian Cowen and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown failed to deliver a deal on policing powers.
Sinn Fein and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) sources last night indicated they would reject a 48-hour deadline by the Irish and British governments after the collapse of negotiations chaired by the two leaders.
The governments believe proposals to devolve policing powers to Stormont in May could be brought to a vote in the Assembly as early as March.
But talks fell due to an ongoing dispute between Sinn Fein and the DUP -- the two biggest parties -- on the future refereeing of contentious Orange Order parades through Catholic areas.
Government officials were not confident of a breakthrough by tomorrow, even with Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin and Northern Secretary Shaun Woodward remaining on hand to host talks.
The risk of the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein resigning from the Executive remained a strong possibility.
His resignation would spark new elections to the North's Assembly -- where Sinn Fein would probably emerge as the biggest party, causing greater instability.
Mr Cowen and Mr Brown warned the DUP and Sinn Fein they had until tomorrow to reach agreement, or they would publish their own proposals.
The governments believe publishing these proposals would flush out the parties, as it would show the general public the plans were fair.
Mr Cowen admitted it was "unfortunate that the discussions had not been completed", but insisted progress had been made. He said a very detailed set of discussions had taken place.
Declining to place the blame on any party for the failure, the Taoiseach said he would not make any comment that would be "acrimonious". He said he felt the remaining issues could be resolved.
Mr Brown said the governments had set out "a pathway to agreement" and given the party leaders 48 hours to hammer out a deal.
"If we judge insubstantial progress has been made we will publish our own proposals," he added.
However, sources involved in the talks rejected this deadline laid down by the governments.
Disagreements between the DUP and Sinn Fein on the future status of the body which referees contentious parades in the North remained the roadblock.
Sinn Fein wants the completion of devolution, but the DUP says there has to be confidence in the unionist community before powers are given to local politicians by policing policy being transferred from London to Belfast.
Mr McGuinness expressed his "disappointment" at the talks not reaching a conclusion at the final round-table meeting hosted by Mr Cowen and Mr Brown.
He accused the DUP, at the behest of the Orange Order, of making the abolition of the Parades Commission a precondition for the transfer of powers.
"It made reaching agreement extremely difficult and many are speculating that this was the intention," he said.
"We now intend to study the governments' statement, but one thing is certain, that citizens' rights and entitlements cannot and will not be subject to a unionist veto or an Orange Order precondition."
Sinn Fein may make gains in an Assembly election while the DUP could see itself weakened, due to the fallout from the Iris Robinson affair.
But the opportunity to complete the devolution of policing powers in the North would be lost for quite some time.
Meanwhile, the two unionist parties, the Ulster Unionist Party and the DUP, are considering not running against each other in the British general election in May.
By only putting up one agreed unionist candidate in each constituency, the parties would be expected to elect three extra MPs -- mainly at Sinn Fein's expense.
Mr Cowen and Mr Brown left Hillsborough Castle in a convoy today, after repeatedly denying their negotiations had failed.
But DUP leader Peter Robinson said he wouldn't accept a "second-rate deal to suit someone else's time-limit". He added: "We are not prepared to buy a pig in a poke. We will do what is right for our community."
Mr Martin remained behind with Mr Woodward to make a judgment on the progress of negotiations. Government sources said it was unlikely Mr Brown and Mr Cowen would be returning tomorrow.