The outcome of talks with Stormont’s five main parties on flags, parades, and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles was not expected until at least the early hours of this morning.
Talks chairman and former US diplomat Richard Haass insisted yesterday would be the last day of negotiations and early indications hinted that some form of settlement would be unveiled yesterday afternoon.
However, those predictions proved misplaced.
Emerging last night from the Stormont Hotel in Belfast, where the talks are being held, Democratic Unionist Party negotiator Jeffrey Donaldson said further work was needed.
“I think there is still some way to travel,” said Mr Donaldson.
Having been given an end-of-year deadline to report, Mr Haass aimed to forge a deal before Christmas, but returned to the US without success after ending talks at 4am on Christmas Eve.
He flew back to the North on Saturday in an 11th hour bid to secure agreement, and is due to return to the US today.
Mr Haass was commissioned by First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to try to reach long-sought political consensus on the divisive issues.
Supported by talks vice-chair Meghan O’Sullivan, a Harvard professor and US foreign affairs expert, he has visited the region on numerous occasions, culminating in a period of intensive and often fractious negotiations over the last three weeks.
Ahead of yesterday’s exchanges, Mr Haass warned the parties it was time to “fish or cut bait”.
Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, the White House, and Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers, have already urged the parties to come to an agreement.
The issue surrounding the flying of flags is deadlocked but there is optimism there will be progress on parades and the past.
As he headed to the negotiating table at an hotel in east Belfast yesterday morning, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly said: “There are issues that can be sorted if the political will is there.”
All parties agree that the views of victims should be integral to any process for dealing with the past, but it has been difficult to decide what that mechanism should be, whether limited immunity from prosecution should be offered to those who give information about shootings, bombings, and other atrocities, and what powers any new commission for investigating the past should have.
A replacement for the Government-appointed Parades Commission, which was heavily criticised by unionists after it rerouted a loyalist parade away from the nationalist Ardoyne part of North Belfast last summer following years of annual violence on Jul 12, was one of the keys issues discussed.