Downing Street meetings fail to quell scepticism over Tories' honest broker role
THERESA May's Downing Street talks with the north's parties last night appeared to have failed in changing anybody's mind about her government's professed impartiality in the Stormont talks.
Concerns also remain about the consequences of the mooted deal with the DUP that would see Arlene Foster's party back Mrs May's minority government.
While unionists left Number 10 appearing to accept the prime minister's assurances, Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance remained sceptical of the Tories' honest broker role in a talks process that is scheduled to conclude in less than a fortnight's time.
Negotiations around the DUP's 'confidence and supply' arrangement with the Conservatives were last night said to be continuing, with no official announcement expected until next week.
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds was leading the discussions in London, while Mrs Foster returned home to Fermanagh ahead of travelling to Dublin today to meet newly-appointed Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
Despite the failure to sign-off an agreement with the DUP, the Tories are pressing ahead with the state opening of parliament, which will now take place next Wednesday, having been delayed for two days.
The ceremonial event features the Queen's Speech, where the monarch sets out the British government's legislative programme for the coming year.
It was thought to have been postponed in order for measures agreed with the DUP to be included.
It is not yet clear whether the EU withdrawal talks will go ahead on that day, although Brexit Secretary David Davis has said they will start "next week".
There was little reference in public to the ongoing discussions between the Conservatives and the DUP.
Speaking after leaving Number 10, Mr Dodds said the party was "working very, very hard to deliver good government for Northern Ireland and good government for the United Kingdom".
He said he emphasised to Mrs May that his party stood ready to form a new executive "without any preconditions or red lines".
"We don't think there is a need to further delay a process that should be put in place to address the needs of the people of Northern Ireland," he said.
Gerry Adams said Sinn Féin had told Mrs May "very directly" she was in breach of the Good Friday Agreement.
He said his party would oppose any deal between the British government and the DUP that undermined the 1998 accord but he said Sinn Féin would support any additional funds for the north secured in return for supporting Mrs May.
But he added: "A little side bargain to keep Theresa May in power, a temporary little arrangement, won't have any integrity."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood described the Downing Street meeting as "very positive" but said it would require a lot more to convince his party that "the DUP tail is not wagging the Tory dog".
"It can't be a deal that affects and infects the talks process," he said.
Alliance leader Naomi Long said Mrs May had "sought to give us her reassurance on neutrality".
"In reality, the government is here simply because the DUP allow it to be so," she said.
"In terms of neutrality, politically I think it is compromised by the fact that they are now in coalition with one party."
However, she said her party would "continue to work in good faith".
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann rejected the call for an independent talks chair to replace Secretary of State James Brokenshire.
He described the proposal from Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance as a "sideshow".
"We have two weeks from today to get the Northern Ireland executive up and functioning again and to try to bring in a new chair is actually a waste of time and a distraction," he said.
A statement from Mrs May last night said time to find agreement at Stormont was "running short".
She said her government remained committed to ensuring the negotiations came to a successful conclusion and that it was committed to the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent deals.
A Downing Street spokesman said the prime minister had given similar commitments to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during an earlier telephone conversation.