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UK Politics

Ulster talks continue as deal proves elusive

Marathon talks to save Northern Ireland's crisis-hit powersharing government entered a sixth day today.

Sinn Fein and Democratic Unionist leadership teams again negotiated past midnight at Hillsborough Castle, Co Down with a deal proving elusive.

Parties gave no signal whether talks to end the long running dispute over the devolution of policing powers would continue later, with the DUP understood to want to park the process for the weekend.

A deadline imposed by the Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Irish premier Brian Cowen to reach a settlement passed yesterday lunchtime.

The parties were told that a failure to secure a deal by then would see the two governments publish their own proposals to end the impasse over transferring law and order powers.

But with meaningful engagement between the DUP and Sinn Fein continuing through yesterday the timeframe was allowed to slip as Dublin and London continued to monitor progress.

Last night, the DUP was still demanding more time for negotiations, while Sinn Fein said it will soon have to "make a call" on whether a deal is possible.

Sinn Fein negotiators briefed party members on the state of the talks yesterday afternoon, but adjourned the meeting to return to the talks.

Republicans want a swift devolution of policing and justice powers from Westminster to the Stormont Assembly, while unionists want new arrangements for overseeing loyal order parades before giving the go ahead.

The DUP's Edwin Poots said last night: "There has been a considerable amount of work done. I think we are getting to know where the bottom lines are here, and I think it is absolutely necessary that we have total clarity and certainty both on policing and justice, and on the parades issue."

But he said he wanted an unambiguous deal that "every Ulster man and woman" could understand.

He added: "There can be a deal but it can only be on the basis of respect and equality. Some people think they can ride roughshod over the DUP, that they are going to bully them and bully the unionist people...that's not going to happen."

Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy, asked if "a deal was on", said: "Not as yet, it's not on.

"I hope that that changes over the coming hours, and we will certainly remain focused to try to achieve that, but unfortunately to date, a deal is not yet on."

Mr Murphy added: "If there is a possibility of a deal, we will pursue that, but at some stage we will have to call whether the DUP are capable or willing to do the business or not."

Prime Minister Brown and Taoiseach Cowen opened the talks on Monday, but failed to secure a deal before leaving the venue on Wednesday.

Negotiations continued, but speculation earlier yesterday that the two premiers could return to Hillsborough to seal a successful conclusion to the talks dwindled as the talking went on without a final deal.

As night fell on Hillsborough castle, flurries of snow added to the chill factor.

Mr Brown and Mr Cowen want the two sides to agree a process to transfer the powers from London to Belfast by the start of May.

The key sticking point is DUP demands 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 have also insisted they are also open to alternative proposals on parades.

New disclosures of more secret talks between Mr Robinson's DUP 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 are unlikely to help the already tense atmosphere around the negotiating table, and the signs going into today's discussions offered little hope of a breakthrough.

The parades issue clearly remains the major obstacle and if there is no deal, then there is a distinct possibility Sinn Fein will walk away, collapsing the powersharing executive and triggering new Stormont elections.

SDLP leader Mark Durkan called on politicians involved in the Hillsborough talks to step up and complete devolution of policing and justice.

"We are now on the threshold of a very big choice - we can go for complete devolution or a complete mess," he said.