The North’s political parties are today under growing pressure to agree a deal on transferring policing and justice powers from Westminster to Stormont after a package to fund the move was brokered in late night talks in Downing Street.
But while Sinn Féin said Gordon Brown had effectively concluded crucial discussions on financing the plan, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Peter Robinson said he would not be rushed into an early deal.
Now the British Prime Minister is to provide written confirmation of his financial blueprint to the parties on Monday, a move which will coincide with the arrival of a top-level American delegation to Belfast led by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
A British Government source today said excellent progress was made in the talks and said putting a financial package together at the end of negotiations was a major development and a sign of Mr Brown’s commitment to securing a resolution of the issue.
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness emerged from four hours of talks at No 10 last night at around midnight and said major progress had been made.
“What I believe now is that we can be very pleased at the outcome that we have had tonight,” he said.
“I think that from our perspective we have now arrived at the point where we can say with some considerable confidence that we have brought these discussions to a successful conclusion.”
The senior Sinn Féin representative said major progress had been made towards agreeing the final devolution of the powers.
“I am pleased, I think that represents a real achievement on our part, on my part, on Peter’s part, on the efforts made by Gordon Brown and indeed others.”
The devolution of policing and justice was promised in the St Andrews agreement that paved the way for setting-up the power-sharing government in the North.
But while republicans have pressed for swift progress on the issue, the DUP has said it wants to make sure key issues, including the financing of the move, are agreed first.
The unionist party also faces a threat from hard-liners who are totally opposed to sharing responsibility for the justice system with Sinn Féin.
The DUP and Sinn Féin last year agreed a series of choreographed moves that would lead to the eventual devolution of the powers.
Republicans have said a conclusion could be reached before Christmas and have accused Mr Robinson of failing to challenge members of his own party who are opposed to a final deal with Sinn Féin.
But last night Mr Robinson again said his main consideration was securing a solid financial deal and he said he would now hold meetings in Northern Ireland to ensure the government’s offer met the needs of the region’s justice system.
Mr Robinson repeated his position that he would not be pressured into a deal.
He told the BBC: “The Prime Minister understands the issues. He is going to put together his proposal on paper.
“I’ve been in many sets of negotiations and we will want to be sure that the issues that we have discussed are interpreted and expressed in the communication in the way that we would expect, and then colleagues are going to have to make a judgment based on the proposition.”
Leader of the hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) Jim Allister hit out at the prospect of a DUP deal with Sinn Féin.
“For Traditional Unionists devolving policing and justice is not a mere matter of money, it is about the much deeper issue of the folly of gifting such vital and sensitive issues to an Executive and Assembly where IRA/Sinn Féin – the party which still justifies their IRA’s murder of policemen and judges – holds the power of veto,” he said.
“Ending British control of policing and justice has long been a strategic republican demand...No Unionist should be facilitating the attainment of their goal. A triumphant Martin McGuinness in Downing Street is warning in itself.”