A deal in the Hillsborough talks to save the North’s power-sharing government is unlikely today following a decision by the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and 26-County Taoiseach Brian Cowen to leave the talks.
The two premiers had laid out a plan for a 48-hour deadline to reach a deal in the talks, with the possibility that they would return on Friday.
Brian Cowen and Gordon Brown issued a statement on the talks ahead of their departure from Belfast.
Speaking to the media, Mr Brown said it was feasible to achieve the devolution of policing powers from London to Belfast by early May.
“We believe we have proposals that make for a reasonable deal on the devolution of policing and justice,” he said and that “a reasonable settlement” was possible on the outstanding issues. There was “a pathway to an agreement,” he said.
“We know that the people of Northern Ireland want to get on with their lives,” he added, before warning his government would publish its proposals on Friday if no agreement is forthcoming.
Earlier, senior DUP figure Edwin Poots said concluding a deal today was a “big ask” and that significant work remained.
“We are working towards a conclusion and if we get cooperation, these issues can be tied up,” he said. “(If) people play hardball and over-negotiate, then we won’t be caving in.”
There had been reports that progress had been made during an all-night session overnight based on a draft document which was presented by the government and discussed during a multi-party session yesterday evening.
“Perhaps some of the negotiators misunderstood where they thought the DUP were,” said Mr Poots.
“They will find the DUP not in any mood to sign up to a bad deal.”
Sinn Fein has made no comment on the talks, but Martin McGuinness is reported to be unhappy with the pressure being placed on his party for an agreement and Brown’s 48-hour deadline.
Talks broke up last night due to exhaustion after five o’clock in the morning. While Mr Brown missed Prime Minister’s Questions at Westminster to remain at Hillsborough this morning, a decision was taken to leave events in the hands of the British Direct Ruler Shaun Woodward. While his departure raised a question mark over the process, British officials have remained determinedly upbeat about the possibility of a deal.
A significant problem remains the DUP’s demands for an end to the Parades Commission which currently oversees sectarian marches in flashpoint areas such as the Garvaghy Road in Portadown, County Armagh, and other provocative, coat-trailing parades in nationalist areas.
It is understood the Orange Order, the largest of the Protestant marching orders, was indirectly involved in the discussions at Hillsborough.
Today, the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition warned there was widespread concern over the issue of marches being discussed at the political talks. One of the proposals put forward during negotiations is for a process based on the model of the parades dispute in Derry.
However, a spokesperson for the Garvaghy residents said the model had been proposed for the combustible Drumcree march in Portadown over a decade ago but had been withdrawn as unworkable because “it favoured the pro-Orange Order lobby and placed nationalists in Portadown at a distinct disadvantage”.
It was also pointed out that contentious parades in Derry pass through the commercial part of the city rather than residential areas.
“Since 1998, and particularly from the start of this millennium, the rerouting of contentious marches away from the Garvaghy Road and Obins Street by the Parades Commission has meant that our community - and the wider community - has enjoyed successive peaceful summers,” the spokesman said, pointing to alternative routes for the Drucmree parade.
“Continued insistence by some, or any appeasement of the view, that only an Orange march along the Garvaghy Road can form ‘a resolution’ demonstrates a complete disregard for the views of those who would be most directly affected - residents and our families.
“Given the widespread concern, apprehension and fears which are being openly expressed by many within our community in recent days, the GRRC feels that it has no choice but to make the following intervention at the present time.
“We would also, finally, point out that, at no time since 1998, has the Orange Order in Portadown ever sought to legally challenge the validity of the route restrictions imposed upon it in respect of planned marches through Obins Street or Garvaghy Road. That fact alone speaks volumes regarding the Orange Order’s unreasonable and indefensible demands.”