Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Belfast deal in the balance

The Northern Ireland Secretary, Shaun Woodward, and the Irish Foreign Minister, Michael Martin, were due to meet last night to try to end the political deadlock in Belfast in the aftermath of the Iris Robinson scandal. So far no agreement on the devolution of policing and justice has been made.

With a UK general election just months away, Gordon Brown and the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, believe time is running out, and there are serious doubts a deal can be hammered out because of opposition by hardliners within First Minister Peter Robinson's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Without a deal, the Assembly will fall.

Mr Brown, who has already had a series of meetings with Mr Robinson and the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, has tabled a £1bn financial package, partly to fund the transfer of justice and policing. But that is conditional on an agreement.

Although Mr Robinson is taking time out to care for his wife, he will remain in charge of the DUP's negotiations with Sinn Fein – who are becoming increasingly irritated at the delay. Mr Woodward and Mr Martin had talks in Dublin last night and there will be more discussions at Stormont. Downing Street and Mr Cowen are looking for significant movement.

Mr Woodward said the Robinson scandal would not necessarily have a negative impact on moving forward with devolution negotiations, adding that there were opportunities for progress.

"There are many politicians, particularly over the last 24 hours, who have actually faced over the precipice, seen the consequences of not fully engaging and are now really engaging with the issues," he said.