The Ulster Unionist Party's deputy leader, John Taylor, said after a meeting with the nationalist SDLP that the chances of making progress this week had risen from 50 to 60 per cent, raising cautious hopes that agreement might be found on the shape of the new Northern Ireland government.
Further talks will be held today in the hope of clinching agreement before the Christmas recess.
But as the major parties bargained in private, attention was centred on the pyrotechnics within the UK Unionist party, which holds five of the Northern Ireland Assembly's 108 seats. Four assembly members said they were withdrawing their support from the party leader, Robert McCartney, after a row in which they alleged he "impugned their integrity." Mr McCartney responded that their conduct "indicates a lack of political judgement of quite alarming proportions".
He was reportedly ready to withdraw from the assembly in the event of Sinn Fein being brought into government. His four colleagues wanted to fight their case within the assembly.
Although the dispute has no vital significance in terms of the assembly's arithmetic, it is seen as symptomatic of the divided and confused state of political Unionism. The Unionist cause in the assembly is now represented by members fractured into six different factions.
David McKittrick, Review, Page 4Reuse content