Belfast peace talks go to the wire

Thurrock Gazette: Gerry Kelly (left) and Sean Murray (right), of the Sinn Fein delegation, arrive at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast Gerry Kelly (left) and Sean Murray (right), of the Sinn Fein delegation, arrive at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast

Politicians in Northern Ireland are set for another late night of negotiations in a last-ditch attempt to strike a deal on outstanding peace process issues.

The outcome of talks with Stormont's five main parties on flags, parades and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles is now not expected until at least 11pm, but could come much later.

Talks chairman and former US diplomat Richard Haass insisted today would be the last day of negotiations and early indications from within the process hinted that some form of settlement would be unveiled early this afternoon.

But those predictions proved misplaced and another late night of marathon negotiations now looks increasingly likely.

Emerging tonight from the Stormont Hotel in Belfast where the talks are being held, Democratic Unionist negotiator Jeffrey Donaldson said further work was needed.

"I think there is still some way to travel," he said.

Having been given an end-of-year deadline to report, Dr Haass aimed to forge a deal before Christmas, but returned to the US without success after ending talks at 4am on Christmas Eve.

Cutting short his seasonal break, he flew back to the region on Saturday in an 11th hour bid to secure agreement.

He is due to return to the US tomorrow.

Dr Haass was commissioned by Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to try to achieve long-sought political consensus on three of the most divisive issues that were yet to be effectively dealt with.

Supported by talks vice-chair Meghan O'Sullivan, a Harvard professor and US foreign affairs expert, he has flown to the region on numerous occasions, culminating in a period of intensive and often fractious negotiations over the last three weeks.

Ahead of today's exchanges, Dr Haass warned the parties it was time to "fish or cut bait".

Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said on Twitter: "Talks nearing the end, still hopeful and determined to deliver an agreement which sees us continue to move forward."

A final plenary meeting of all parties is expected to begin in the early hours of tomorrow morning when negotiators will decide whether to sign off on a final deal.

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