Villiers issues blunt ultimatum over talks deal

Theresa Villiers issued a terse statement to the parties involved in talks
Theresa Villiers issued a terse statement to the parties involved in talks

The Secretary of State on Sunday night laid down a blunt ultimatum to Stormont’s politicians: Do a deal on Monday, or don’t do one at all.

Theresa Villiers issued a terse statement demanding that politicians must battle through the night in order to cut a deal.

Otherwise, for a second year in a row, a major talks process will have concluded with no agreement at all.

“It’s ‘make your mind up’ time for Northern Ireland’s political leaders,” she said.

“These talks finish tomorrow, even if it takes all night. It there’s no agreement tomorrow, there isn’t going to be one, and the process ends in failure.”

Over the weekend, Prime Minister David Cameron had been examining a financial proposal from the parties that could settle budget problems facing Stormont, particularly the non-implementation of welfare reforms – something which had been blocked by Sinn Fein, and has led to penalties being levied against Northern Ireland.

On Friday, reports emerged that Sinn Fein had finally softened its stance on the matter, with one source claiming they had “caved in”.

The parties then put forward a request for a package worth £2.1bn-plus over the next decade to the Prime Minister, to which the government is expected to respond on Monday.

On Saturday, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness held a conference call with Mr Cameron, after which the First Minister said: “I welcome the fact the Prime Minister is engaged in these financial issues this weekend, and look forward to further discussions on Monday.”

Mr McGuinness, meanwhile, said that any resulting agreement “has to protect the most vulnerable in society”.

But while the Province’s politicians might now have found a way forward on finances, consensus still appears elusive on other matters like flags, parades, and the legacy of the past.

Ms Villiers will again chair negotiations on Monday when they resume at Stormont House.

Asked how important Monday will be for the Province’s future, UUP MLA Tom Elliott said: “It’s critical that they try and get a resolution to the budget crisis, otherwise they may not be in control of whatever course Northern Ireland takes politically over the next number of months.

“They may actually lose control of it locally.”

Resolving the budget issues is important, though he added that “it doesn’t have to be tomorrow – but they do need to get a resolution on the budget certainly in the next short period of time”.

Meanwhile, UUP chairman Reg Empey, also responding to Theresa Villiers’ call for a deal, said: “We’re long enough in the tooth to know you don’t get hung up on deadlines.”

Asked if he feels an agreement will be possible, he said: “I don’t know, and I don’t think it’s profitable to go beyond that. We simply don’t know.”

A number of DUP figures who were called could not be reached.

Meanwhile, the Alliance Party’s Stephen Farry said: “The Northern Ireland political process cannot bear many more failed political initiatives; public cynicism is already very apparent.”