Politicians from Northern Ireland’s five main parties yesterday worked late into the night to try and seal a last-ditch agreement on the way forward on flags, parades and dealing with the past.
Mid-evening yesterday it was announced that an official update on progress would be given at 11pm.
But around 10.30pm it was revealed that a final text was to be delivered to the political parties at 11.30.
This was then to be followed by a round-table session involving all parties at 1.30am.
Talks chairman and former US diplomat Richard Haass insisted yesterday would be the last day of negotiations and early indications from within the process hinted that some form of settlement would be unveiled early yesterday afternoon.
But those predictions proved misplaced and another late night of marathon negotiations took place.
Emerging last night from the Stormont Hotel in Belfast where the talks were being held, Democratic Unionist negotiator Jeffrey Donaldson said further work was needed.
“I think there is still some way to travel,” he said.
Having been given an end-of-year deadline to report, Dr Haass aimed to forge a deal before Christmas, but returned to the US without success after ending talks at 4am on Christmas Eve.
Cutting short his seasonal break, he flew back to the region on Saturday in an 11th hour bid to secure agreement.
He is due to return to the US today.
Dr Haass was commissioned by Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to try to achieve long-sought political consensus on three of the most divisive issues that were yet to be effectively dealt with.
Supported by talks vice-chair Meghan O’Sullivan, a Harvard professor and US foreign affairs expert, he has flown to the region on numerous occasions, culminating in a period of intensive and often fractious negotiations over the last three weeks.
Ahead of yesterday’s exchanges, Dr Haass warned the parties it was time to “fish or cut bait”.
Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness called on the diplomatic experience of Dr Haass in an effort to finally achieve agreement on three divisive issues that for years have inhibited progress toward meaningful reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
While flag and parade disputes have sparked episodes of serious public disorder, the issue of the past is arguably still the most emotive facing post-conflict Northern Ireland.
With more than 3,000 killed during the Troubles and the majority of murders still unsolved, countless bereaved continue to campaign for both truth and justice.
Meanwhile, thousands injured in the violence still suffer the physical consequences.
An agreed mechanism to address the legacy of the conflict has always proved elusive.
An ill-fated set of proposals in 2009 floundered on the controversial suggestion to pay all those bereaved in the conflict, including relatives of paramilitaries, a £12,000 acknowledgement payment.
In a clear indication of the potential of the past to destabilise the present, many victims’ families reacted with fury last month when Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin QC called for an end to prosecutions, inquests and public inquiries in all Troubles-related crimes, insisting a line in the sand should be drawn at the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998.
At 10pm yesterday Mr McGuinness said on Twitter: “Talks nearing the end, still hopeful and determined to deliver an agreement which sees us continue to move forward.”
Commenting ahead of the final stages of the talks, Ivan Lewis, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said: “As these talks enter their final crunch stage the stakes couldn’t be higher.
“Dealing with the causes of ongoing tensions and the unresolved traumas of the past are the key to building a better shared future for the people of Northern Ireland.
“Based on my discussions with key participants in the talks over the last few days it is clear a substantive agreement on parades and dealing with the past is within reach.
“I hope Northern Ireland’s political leaders will demonstrate the courage to make challenging but necessary compromises and the UK and Irish governments are doing everything in their power to secure a positive outcome.”