The positions of the northern parties on policing and justice hardened last night as it appeared the DUP will attempt to negotiate separately from Sinn Fein with the British government.
The move further complicate attempts to reach a deal after the DUP declared there was no prospect of the transfer of policing and justice powers this year.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is in Belfast today for talks in an attempt to advance the peace process, which has largely stalled since the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.
He may try to tie down some positions but there is thought to be little prospect of a deal before October 12, when US secretary of state Hillary Clinton arrives.
The DUP said it would “negotiate as a party” on the policing issue, although party leader Peter Robinson will still attend meetings with Brown along with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness.
Sinn Fein, meanwhile, has denied suggestions from some unionists that they might be trying to force an early assembly election.
Peter Robinson insisted yesterday that even if a deal was reached, policing and justice powers could not be devolved in the coming months.
“Even if I was to agree to the devolution of policing and justice powers today, it couldn’t be done before Christmas,” he said.
“Because the reality is there is further legislation to go through the assembly.
“There is even a bill going through the assembly at the present time and there are other processes.”
It is now thought unlikely that the DUP will move until a British general election, when they hope a more favourable Tory government will take power in London.
MONEY NOT THE ISSUE
Martin McGuinness accused the DUP of making increasingly “bizarre” outbursts but said his party wanted proper arrangements put in place, and insisted financing for devolution is the key issue.
He said: “People need to hear the DUP saying when transfer will happen, not when it won’t.”
“We believe these negotiations can only be concluded in meetings with the British. Nothing will be gained or concluded by running away from meetings with Gordon Brown and the British government.
“We are committed to resolving the outstanding issues on policing and justice finance in partnership with the DUP and putting a joint position to the British.”
Following talks today, Mr McGuinness said Mr Brown had still not put a final figure to him on the cost of a settlement.
He said that a final offer had not been made because Mr Brown was not sure if local leaders were yet in a position to take the decisive step.
Mr McGuinness said: “Gordon Brown has reiterated that this will not fail because of money. He said he was determined to deliver.
“We are very rapidly approaching make-your-mind-up time.”
The suspicion among nationalists is that internal DUP politicking is preventing progress.
The SDLP accused the DUP of stalling on the issue in a bid to retain support ahead of next year’s Westminster election against a threat from Jim Allister’s ultra-unionist TUV party.
“This was a blunt and backward message from Peter Robinson. There won’t be devolution of justice, not only before Christmas but also before the Westminster elections,” Alex Attwood said.
“The DUP has decided that the best way to turn the TUV tide next year is to hold up devolution of policing and justice and claim that nationalism has been held up into the bargain.”
The DUP also said it intends to talk to British Conservative Party leader David Cameron on whether he will honour a deal of the transfer of powers from London to Belfast.
Cameron is widely expected to become the new British Prime Minister by next June, when a British general election is due.
Cameron last night said there would be “no blank cheque” on funding for the north’s policing and justice system under a Conservative government.
“I can’t give a blank cheque but there’s a great deal of cross-party consensus about this issue in that we all want to see devolution of law and justice as part of the devolution process,” he said.