David Cameron has pledged to push hard for a political deal in Northern Ireland ahead of his arrival in the region to lead the final phase of the latest cross-party talks process.
The Prime Minister said he was determined to do everything he could to resolve the disputes that are creating instability at Stormont.
Mr Cameron and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny will travel to Belfast this afternoon to take the helm of a process now in its ninth week.
“These talks have reached a crucial phase,” Mr Cameron said ahead of his intervention.
“As Prime Minister I am determined to do everything I can to help resolve outstanding issues and secure agreement across a range of vitally important issues.”
The participants are set for a long night of negotiations with further discussions scheduled for tomorrow.
As well as long-standing wrangles over flags, parades and the toxic legacy of the past, the five parties in the power-sharing coalition are trying to reach consensus on budgetary problems facing the devolved institutions, particularly the impasse over the non-implementation of the UK government’s welfare reforms in Northern Ireland. The structures and governance arrangements at Stormont are also on the agenda.
Mr Cameron is certain to face calls from the region’s politicians to offer more funds to help secure peace process gains.
Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness have both set the weekend as an effective deadline for a deal.
Both men have conceded the chances of securing agreement after Christmas would be limited due to the inevitable hardening of political positions in the run up to the UK general election.
Mr Cameron, writing in a Belfast newspaper, said he wanted to see a successful conclusion this week.
He said he knew Mr Kenny fully shared his strong commitment to finding agreement.
“That is why the UK Government, along with our very close colleagues in the Irish Government, will be pushing hard to bring these discussions to a successful conclusion this week,” the Prime Minister said.
“I am confident, too, that Northern Ireland’s political leaders share a genuine desire to reach an agreement.”
Mr Kenny said he was cautiously optimistic that an agreement could be concluded.
“While recognising the complex and difficult issues to be addressed, the parties have engaged constructively and with a renewed effort, an agreement could be reached which would offer a brighter future for the people of Northern Ireland,” he said.
Irish Tanaiste Joan Burton TD; Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Charlie Flanagan Minister of State Sean Sherlock will also travel to Belfast for the talks process.
Shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland Ivan Lewis welcomed Mr Cameron’s intervention.
“Labour welcomes the Prime Minister’s decision to visit Northern Ireland at this crucial time,” he said.
“We have long urged David Cameron and the Government to take a far more proactive approach to supporting Northern Ireland’s parties in resolving contentious issues which continue to limit Northern Ireland’s capacity to build a shared future.
“Therefore his participation alongside the Taoiseach in the ongoing interparty talks is to be welcomed. We hope this will be a catalyst for the parties to reach a meaningful agreement on the budget, including welfare reform, and all legacy issues.
“Another failure to reach agreement will not only risk the stability of Northern Ireland’s political institutions, it will further damage public confidence in Northern Ireland’s political leadership.
“The best Christmas present the people of Northern Ireland could receive is a renewed sense of hope and optimism about the future.”