Leaders swoop in for crisis talks on North

CRISIS negotiations fuelled by a frantic diplomatic push, which saw the Taoiseach and his British counterpart rush to Belfast to try and prevent a collapse of power-sharing, spilled into a second tense day as both leaders dug in for a deal.

The gathering emergency threatening to smash the Belfast institutions apart forced Brian Cowen and Gordon Brown into the dramatic step of breaking off from a Downing Street summit to fly directly to Hillsborough and take charge of the unravelling situation yesterday evening.

The simmering row over delays in devolving policing and justice powers to Stormont finally exploded after a terse face to face showdown between DUP leader Peter Robinson and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness.

Republicans are incensed at unionist demands for the justice issue to be linked to the abolition of the Parades Commission, which Sinn Féin sees as an attempt to give the Orange Order aveto over the process and hand the DUP a victory.

Negotiations were continuing through the night as both premiers stayed at Hillsborough Castle, and Northern Secretary Shaun Woodward predicted the “end game” was being reached as he hinted at “lateral thinking” on the parades sticking point.

It is understood Sinn Féin put pressure on Dublin and London to intervene directly after the party signalled it was preparing to collapse power-sharing and force fresh Assembly elections.

Both governments are keen for the present administration to go its full term into next year as an early poll could throw the North into the untested situation of Sinn Féin emerging as the biggest party and Mr McGuinness assuming the role of First Minister.

Mr Brown insisted the problems were “soluble”, but the gravity of the situation is underlined by the fact he made time to dash to the North when he is preparing to host two major international conferences in London on Middle East terrorism and the future for Afghanistan.

Both premiers put major domestic agendas on hold to try and overcome the last major constitutional threat to power-sharing ripping the Assembly apart as dissident republicans and the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) threaten to erode SF and DUP support from the outer extremes.

Mr Robinson continues to lead DUP negotiations despite standing down for six weeks as first minister in the wake of the financial and sexual allegations swirling around his marriage.

DUP finance minister Sammy Wilson dismissed the Sinn Féin stance as a “contrived crisis”. The DUP has seen its position strengthen after the hammer-blow of revelations surrounding the relationship of Mr Robinson’s wife, Iris, with a 19-year-old, as the party is edging towards an electoral pact with arch foes the Ulster Unionists.

Mr McGuinness expressed frustration at the unionist stance as many in the party question the DUP’s agenda.

Foreign Minister Micheál Martin warned the weight of the situation demanded the presence of both premiers at Hillsborough.

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