Peter Robinson warning on Ulster policing deal

It is too soon to tell if a deal will be clinched on devolving policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland, the leader of the Democratic Unionists warned today.

Peter Robinson said the controversy had dogged the power-sharing government throughout its three-year existence but he downplayed any sense of crisis.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Irish Premier Brian Cowen are chairing intensive negotiations involving all the main parties at Hillsborough Castle in Co Down in an attempt to break the stalemate.

Downing Street said it was "too early to speculate" about whether Mr Brown would spend a second night in Northern Ireland.

A spokeswoman said: "The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach are both of the view that progress can be made."

Mr Robinson said: "It really isn't until the last few minutes or hours that you do get the sense that it (a deal) can be put together.

"I can't say that there is going to be a deal, we are going to sit at the table... until we get the deal."

He added: "The issue of policing and justice has dogged us in the Assembly. It has taken away the focus that we should have on other issues."

As well as setting a date for the transfer of security responsibilities from London to Belfast, there is also the question of the adjudication of controversial loyal order parades in dispute with Sinn Fein.

The DUP East Belfast MP added that community engagement could help resolve that.

"What we need to do is to ensure that we get a resolution to parades disputes," he said.

Mr Robinson, who temporarily stood down as First Minister earlier this month, was flanked by acting First Minister Arlene Foster and Culture Minister Nelson McCausland at the gates of Hillsborough Castle.

He added that he was taking a measured approach in talks with government partner Sinn Fein but said he would not be bullied into anything.

"This is not a party-political quibble, this isn't a small issue, this is a critical issue. Policing and justice is a life or death issue, it is a sensitive issue, it is something that touches every member of our community.

"We need to ensure that everybody is going to be dealt with fairly, that we are not going to have urgent decisions that can't be taken," he said.

"It is essential we ensure that the processes of government are so that it will not be dysfunctional.

"That is the critical matter for us and we are not there yet in terms of being satisfied that the arrangements are satisfactory."

He said the mandatory coalition had to deal with the poison of unresolved issues.

"We are up for the job, we are resolving the outstanding issues," he said.

"We believe that the powers should be devolved to Northern Ireland, it is our manifesto commitment to the people of Northern Ireland."

He said the parades dispute was a "toxic" issue but pointed to developments in Londonderry, where the Apprentice Boys have a Maiden City Festival and encourage non-confrontation.

The US administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is understood to be taking a keen interest in the discussions.

The British and Irish leaders are understood to have cleared their diaries for the coming days in anticipation of intensive exchanges with the rival politicians. The British Cabinet meeting has been postponed.

Late last night, the two Governments were holding private meetings with DUP and Sinn Fein negotiating teams, while senior party figures from the Ulster Unionists, the nationalist SDLP and the Alliance Party also arrived at the talks venue to be briefed on progress.

While Sinn Fein said it was still holding out for a firm devolution date, the DUP again insisted it required concessions on how loyalist order parades were managed before it gave the go- ahead for the transfer.

The region's largest unionist party did, however, indicate that it would be open to proposals on how to resolve the thorny parades issue.

DUP Finance Minister Sammy Wilson expressed hope last night that a deal could be secured, although he was critical of what he described as the atmosphere of crisis that had developed.

Mr Wilson said: "As far as we are concerned this is a contrived crisis, we don't need to be here tonight.

"There are many things I am sure most people would prefer - that the Assembly would get on with the task which it already has competence over and secondly that the parties then would sit down in a responsible way and deal with the issues which are still outstanding to allow devolution of policing and justice to take place."

The SDLP and Ulster Unionist Party called for the talks to be inclusive. UUP leader Sir Reg Empey said it was hard to negotiate with the "Sword of Damocles" hanging over them.

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