Optimism grows as sides move closer to policing deal
The Government was optimistic last night of a policing deal being struck by Sinn Fein and the DUP today -- despite rumours of a rift in the largest unionist party.
After both parties gave positive responses to their latest round of talks, the North appeared to be on the brink of an agreement on the transfer of policing powers. A final decision is hoped for today, in a deal to prevent the collapse of the North's institutions and fresh elections to the Assembly.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown put plans to travel to the North on hold as talks dragged on. The two leaders are expected in Belfast this evening to sign off on the deal.
The leadership of the Democratic Unionist Party were locked in lengthy internal discussions yesterday on whether they would sign up to a deal.
There were fears of hardline DUP members derailing the proposed agreement to end the long-running dispute with Sinn Fein. However, symbolically accompanied by his predecessor, Reverend Ian Paisley, DUP leader Peter Robinson clearly moved to dismiss any suggestions of an internal rift.
"We have unanimously expressed the view that we're encouraged by the progress that's been made so far," he said, after his party's discussions.
The epic talks on the devolution of policing and justice entered their second week yesterday. The key sticking point remains a DUP demand for the scrapping of the body responsible for ruling on contentious parades -- a move resisted by Sinn Fein.
Instead of the Parades Commission, the talks are hammering out the possibility of arbitration being handled by an independent panel, appointed by the office of the First and Deputy First Minister.
Both the DUP and Sinn Fein said they are close to a deal on the devolution of justice powers.
Although admitting some issues remained to be dealt with, the parties were confident of reaching agreement.
The centre of activity moved from Hillsborough Castle to the Parliament Buildings in Stormont. Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin and Northern Secretary Shaun Woodward remained on hand to chair round-table talks, which will resume this morning.
But the face-to-face talks between the Sinn Fein and DUP delegations did seem to make significant progress.
Mr Robinson, the North's First Minister, said some issues still had to be resolved and his party planned to meet the other parties and the Irish and British governments.
After a meeting of his party's assembly members, he also said there should not be any talk of a threat to collapse the institutions.
"We would intend tonight to be meeting with the government and the other parties, and we will do that with all due diligence. We are determined to make these institutions work," he said.
Sinn Fein junior minister Gerry Kelly said his party was "confident we can make a deal" after the meeting with the DUP.
"We want to conclude this. It was a long enough meeting this morning, and we're looking forward to the next meeting," he said.
Mr Cowen's spokesman said the Government was "encouraged" by the fact Mr Robinson felt progress was being made and that he didn't want to hear about the institutions collapsing. Similarly, Mr Kelly's remarks were warmly received.
"We see those comments as positive," he said.