Stormont ‘breakthrough’ after threat to suspend talks

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers speaking to the media at Stormont House on Friday
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers speaking to the media at Stormont House on Friday

The Executive parties have demanded more than £2.1 billion from the Government in return for striking a deal at the Stormont talks in what they have presented as a dramatic breakthrough in negotiations.

Crucially, it appears that the agreement involves Sinn Fein’s acceptance of welfare reform, although some of the cuts to benefits would be offset by greater spending by the Stormont Executive.

But the News Letter understands from two sources that the sudden movement by the parties – after 10 weeks with negligible progress – only came after the Government made clear on Thursday afternoon that it was on the verge of suspending the talks.

With uncharacteristic bluntness, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers told the parties at midday on Thursday that she was prepared to immediately suspend the talks, as no progress was being made.

It is understood that subsequently a decision was taken to act on that threat but, after a final plea by the Executive parties, she gave them until 10am on Friday to demonstrate that they were genuinely negotiating.

One source close to the talks said that Peter Robinson left the talks to take a phone call around tea time and that after that the mood changed dramatically.

Friday’s agreement on a financial proposal – which now has been put to the Prime Minister – does not include agreement on parades, flags or the past.

Talks on the past are said to have continued on Friday but the unionist parties are said to be refusing to negotiate on parading until the announcement of the panel of inquiry into the north Belfast parades impasse.

In a press conference on Friday afternoon, Ms Villiers gave away little about the likely Government response to the Executive’s proposal.

She said: “In the last 48 hours or so, the parties are looking at these issues with a seriousness which has been enhanced.

“There is a more determined and businesslike approach than we have seen over the last 48 hours or so which we probably have not seen in the first 10 weeks.”

The Republic’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Charlie Flanagan, said: “Substantial progress has been made in negotiations over the past 24 hours.”

Alliance leader David Ford told BBC Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra programme that Sinn Fein had “rowed back significantly” from their past position.