Northern Ireland news

Foster says any briefings of loyalists by party figures were 'not on my behalf'

Arlene Foster says she has 'no knowledge' of loyalists being briefed before the collapse of political talks last month. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire

DUP leader Arlene Foster has said any briefings of senior loyalists by party figures about political negotiations were "not on my behalf".

The former first minister was responding to an The Irish News report that loyalists with links to the UDA and UVF were briefed that a deal on the Irish language had been reached the weekend before the collapse of the talks.

The hardline loyalists were told that provisions for the language in the agreement would "only enshrine in legislation" rights already available.

The briefings are understood to have taken place on Sunday February 11 – less than 24 hours before before Leo Varadkar and Theresa May visited Belfast amid expectation that a deal to restore power-sharing was imminent.

Speaking in Brussels yesterday, Mrs Foster said she was not claiming that discussions did not happen but she was unaware of any briefings and had not personally sanctioned them.

"I have absolutely no knowledge of that – if people were briefing organisations they were doing it on their own behalf, they certainly weren't doing it on behalf of me or the Democratic Unionist Party," she said.

"I'm not saying it didn't take place, I'm saying they didn't do it on my behalf or on behalf of the Democratic Unionist Party."

The leaking of last month's 'draft agreement' and debate around what the DUP negotiating team was potentially prepared to sign up to is proving an embarrassment for Mrs Foster, whose media appearances have been limited since she collapsed the talks three weeks ago.

Yesterday she was forced to issue a second statement is as many days refuting speculation around the exchange of documents with Sinn Féin in the period leading up the collapse of the Stormont talks.

On Monday, the former first minister denied reports that she handed Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill a copy of a draft agreement on Friday February 9, just days ahead of the taoiseach and prime minister's Belfast visit.

The DUP leader said "draft papers" were exchanged on a daily basis but that none had any standing.

Fresh claims emerged yesterday that DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds was present when Ms O'Neill gave Mrs Foster the draft deal.

The North Belfast MP told the BBC last week that he would have been "highly surprised" if Mrs Foster had handed the 13-page document to the Sinn Féin MLA.

In response to the latest claims about Mr Dodds, the DUP leader said she could "clarify categorically" that her deputy did not attend any meeting where any document was handed over to Sinn Féin.

She said it was disappointing that there were "some people who want to sow discord amongst unionists when there is none".

Mrs Foster claimed the talks failed because republicans wanted a "one-sided deal" and that any deal must be "fair and balanced".

She again said there was never any agreement reached.

"Papers were exchanged but a paper on the Irish language had no more standing than a paper on SF ministers implementing the military covenant," the Fermanagh-South Tyrone MLA said.

"On the final Friday of the talks, I released a statement saying there was more work to do. The selectively leaked papers show there were square brackets showing no agreement."

The DUP leader added that "arguing over the scraps of negotiations" ignored the issues that needed to be addressed.

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