Unionist negotiators locked in party talks

Unionist negotiators locked in party talks

Democratic Unionist members were locked in lengthy internal discussions today on whether they will sign up to a deal that could save the North's power-sharing government.

A scheduled morning meeting of the party's assembly group at Stormont extended through lunchtime with no sign of progress amid fears that some hardline members could be experiencing cold feet over the proposed settlement to end the long-running row with Sinn Féin over the stalled devolution of policing and justice powers.

The behind-closed-doors exchanges broke for a brief period early this afternoon and were due to reconvene later.

Earlier, a Sinn Féin meeting to brief its members on progress lasted just more 90 minutes.

A senior DUP source denied rumours of last-minute jitters, but said discussions would continue.

The development came after a weekend when hopes of a breakthrough rose.

Both the DUP and Sinn Féin said significant progress was made last week during a marathon 100 hours of negotiations at Hillsborough Castle, Co Down.

The partners in the power-sharing administration disagreed over a solution for dealing with loyal order parades, and the governments threatened to publish their own proposals to break the deadlock.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown launched the dialogue last Monday.

The six-day negotiations were adjourned on Saturday night with all parties sounding more positive.

The key sticking point was a DUP demand for the abolition of the Parades Commission, which adjudicates on contentious marches, instead leaving it to an independent panel, appointed by the office of the First and Deputy First Minister, to arbitrate.

But they insisted they are open to alternative proposals on parades.

Mr Brown and Mr Cowen failed to secure a deal before leaving the venue on Wednesday. They want the two sides to agree a process to transfer policing powers from London to Belfast by the start of May.

If there is no deal, there is a possibility Sinn Féin would walk away, collapsing the power-sharing executive and triggering new Stormont elections.

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