Peter Robinson 'struggling to sell Northern Ireland policing deal to DUP'

Negotiations over a devolution deal continued into the early hours amid growing indications that DUP leader Peter Robinson was struggling to sell policing and justice proposals to members of his own party.

Sinn Fein and DUP teams were again meeting at Hillsborough overnight after the emergence of signs of last-minute problems which prevented a return visit yesterday by Premiers Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen.

There were reports of unease within DUP ranks and indications that some of the party's Assembly team has voiced disquiet about aspects of the agreement.

Remaining issues were said to centre on when revised mechanisms for dealing with parades might come into effect — apparently not in time for this year's marching season — and how a new Department of Justice will work. There were also indications of concerns that promises over how the wider party would be involved in consultations have not yet been met.

Mr Robinson, however, who reportedly met his MLAs one-by-one along with Acting First Minister Arlene Foster, was said to be confident the negotiations could be closed.

While their frustration continued, Sinn Fein appeared fairly relaxed at any 11th-hour difficulties.

The Assembly parties had been set to seal the deal to make local control over police and the legal system a reality — just after their 1,000th day in office since devolution returned.

The wraps were expected to come off a package of proposals, including a streamlined procedure on parades to prevent contentious marches bringing violence to flashpoint areas and destabilising the administration.

Prime Ministers Brown and Cowen were said to be on stand-by to fly back to Ulster to herald an historic handover of powers from Westminster, with a Stormont administration responsible for law and order for the first time in almost 40 years.

Mr Robinson was last night locked into “clarification” talks with Secretary of State Shaun Woodward and Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin at Hillsborough. Now stood down as First Minister for three weeks, Mr Robinson emerged from a party meeting shortly after teatime flanked by his predecessor Ian Paisley, party hardliner Gregory Campbell and his deputy leader Nigel Dodds, who is seen as a pivotal figure in bringing party sceptics over the line to accept a deal.

Mr Robinson said a number of issues remained to be resolved which he hoped could be achieved “with all due diligence”.

Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly said a number of issues still had to be resolved but the party was confident of reaching a deal. “There are no sticking points — we are close to conclusion,” he said.

First Minister Questions at the Northern Ireland Assembly was postponed as speculation mounted that a deal on policing and justice powers was close.

At least preliminary arrangements for Mr Brown to travel back to Belfast were inadvertently revealed in the House of Commons. It also emerged Mr Cowen had cancelled a trip to Madrid.

In London Foreign Secretary David Miliband let it slip in Parliament that Mr Brown had been en route and then postponed travel plans for Belfast.

Asked by MPs where the PM was, Mr Miliband said: “He's in Northern Ireland actually.” Then he corrected his comments after being handed a note.

The ongoing talks also meant First Ministers Question Time in the Assembly was called off.

New SDLP MLA Conall McDevitt said it was 1001 days since the current DUP and Sinn Fein-dominated Executive began, yet it had achieved less than its predecessor, primarily run by his party and Ulster Unionists, in 750 days.

* Source: The Belfast Telegraph