'Considerable progress' in Ulster negotiations

A deal to save Northern Ireland's powersharing government was in sight today after "considerable progress" was made in securing the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast.

Talks ended last night without agreement but hopes were mounting that a deal could be struck when negotiations resume tomorrow.

Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward said: "We have made, across six very long days I think, considerable progress. There remains work to be done."

Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown launched the dialogue at Hillsborough Castle, Co Down, on Monday.

Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists disagreed over a solution for dealing with loyal order parades.

The governments threatened to publish their own proposals to break the deadlock.

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin praised the parties. "They are engaging, in our view, in a way that is purposeful and with determination to resolve the issues."

Sinn Fein negotiator Conor Murphy said: "We are maybe getting somewhere now. We have progress made, we are hopeful that we can finish this fairly quickly.

"We are getting towards that point now where negotiations will end."

Democratic Unionist Edwin Poots said: "There is considerable advancement, what I said previously was that there would have to be certainty and clarity and there would appear to be greater certainty and clarity than was the case when I was speaking on Thursday night."

Nationalist SDLP Assembly member Alex Attwood said: "Our sense is that those negotiations continue to move forward steadily and in a positive fashion."

The key sticking point was a DUP demand for the abolition of the Parades Commission, which adjudicates on contentious marches, and instead leave it to an independent panel, appointed by the office of the First and Deputy First Minister, to arbitrate. But they also insisted they are open to alternative proposals on parades.

Mr Brown and Mr Cowen failed to secure a deal before leaving the venue on Wednesday. They want the two sides to agree a process to transfer the powers from London to Belfast by the start of May.

There were new disclosures earlier this week of more secret talks between Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson and Sir Reg Empey's Ulster Unionist Party, under the auspices of the Orange Order, in an attempt to agree a unionist unity electoral pact.

If there was no deal there was a possibility Sinn Fein would walk away, collapsing the powersharing executive and triggering new Stormont elections.

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