Stormont talks go through the night

Parliament Buildings Stormont
Parliament Buildings Stormont

Northern Ireland’s leaders have been negotiating through the night in a marathon bid to secure a deal on a range of Stormont disputes.

The last ditch talks between the five Executive parties and the UK and Irish governments at Stormont Castle began yesterday at noon and are still going.

Yesterday was set as the official deadline for the eleven-week process to end, but intensive discussions pushed past midnight and extended through into the early morning.

Another round table meeting was scheduled for 7am.

The talks are aimed at reaching consensus on a range of wrangles creating logjams in the administration.

Long-standing peace process disputes on flags, parades and the legacy of the past are on the agenda, as are more immediate budgetary concerns, in particular the Executive’s non-implementation of the UK government’s welfare reforms.

Negotiations are focusing on the structures and governance arrangements at Stormont as well.

First Minister Peter Robinson yesterday said the quest to strike a deal was set to go “down to the wire”.

“I think there is a real chance for us to do the job but it does require all of us to apply ourselves and at the end of the day it will require all of us to stretch ourselves,” said the Democratic Unionist leader.

Sinn Fein negotiator Conor Murphy said: “I think there is a sense of common purpose among the parties, not on every position but on a willingness to try and find something we can all live with.”

Crucial to negotiations are the terms of a new financial package proposed by David Cameron.

Earlier this month the Prime Minister tabled proposals that he said would have given Stormont access to an extra £1 billion of spending powers.

Last week, the five Executive parties made a counter-bid, requesting £2 billion-plus of extra funding and loan access over the next decade that, they claimed, would help settle budgetary problems.

As anticipated, Mr Cameron’s revised offer falls somewhere in between those two positions.

While the region’s politicians have agreed a joint position on finances, they are still striving for consensus on the other issues.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers is chairing the negotiations while the Irish Republic’s foreign affairs minister Charlie Flanagan is also involved.

The financial proposal from the Stormont parties essentially addressed long-standing nationalist concerns over introducing the Government’s welfare policies in Northern Ireland by establishing a significant “cushion” fund, drawn from the Executive’s budget, to support those hardest-hit by the changes to the benefits system.

It is understood the package put to Mr Cameron by the five parties envisages Treasury penalties for delayed implementation of welfare reform being waived; increased borrowing powers to fund a civil service voluntary redundancy scheme; and a multimillion-pound Government contribution to fund new mechanisms to investigate the legacy of the Troubles.