Negotiations have ended between Sinn Fein and the DUP but unionists are understood to be continuing to hold private talks with the British government in a bid to ensure sectarian Orange Order parades are forced through nationalist communities.
Sinn Fein has made no comment tonight on the side talks between the DUP and British officials at Hillsborough, although Sinn Fein negotiator Gerry Kelly this afternoon declared the talks were at an end.
Mr Kelly said: “The negotiations have come to a conclusion. We believe that it is a positive conclusion and we believe that it is the basis on which to move forward.”
However, there have been reports that last-minute discussions have been taking place between the DUP and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown as well as with British Conservative Party leader David Cameron.
A key demand of the DUP is that the Parades Commission, which adjudicates on the routes of contentious sectarian parades, be scrapped, or that guarantees are otherwise secured to ensure triumphalist Orange Order parades can go ahead down the Garvaghy Road in Portadown, in Ardyone in north Belfast, and through other nationalist communities.
The parades would allow unionists to retain a sense of supremacy to balance the perceived danger that nationalists could in the future gain control over the key Justice Ministry in the devolved Belfast administration. A final date for the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast is a key Sinn Fein demand in the talks, which arose out of a failure to implement the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.
A meeting of the DUP Assembly group, set for 10pm tonight, could yield a final answer on whether the two weeks of negotiations will finally reach a new deal.
Both Gordon Brown and 26-County Taoiseach Brian Cowen reportedly remain on standby to travel to Hillsborough at short notice to ratify any agreement.
On Thursday evening, DUP Environment Minister Edwin Poots confirmed his party was meeting the British government at Hillsborough castle for further talks.
In a response to the Sinn Fein comments, he said: “The referee’s whistle has not been blown yet. And if one team leaves the pitch before the referee’s whistle is blown, that is a matter for them. We are still playing.”
British officials claimed the meeting did not represent a further negotiation but instead involved an effort to provide “clarity” on the prime minister Gordon Brown’s offer of almost a billion Euro to fund the transfer of policing and justice powers. The talks are also said to include efforts to support the crisis-hit financial institution, the Presbyterian Mutual Society.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams writing earlier today claimed his party had blocked moves by the DUP to secure concessions from the British government after the unionist party met internal difficulties on Monday.
Mr Adams said: “We were to meet Peter Robinson when his group meeting was finished but he headed off to talk to the British. There was then a real concern that there would be an attempt to re-negotiate what had been agreed. We ruled that out.
“It is obvious that Peter has to go back to his Assembly group.”