Leading article

DUP's position under close scrutiny

While both of the main Stormont parties must take their share of responsibility for the failure to restore our devolved institutions last month, it is the position of the DUP which is coming under particular scrutiny.

It was already known that the two sides had come close to reaching an understanding, with taoiseach Leo Varadkar and prime minister Theresa May plainly believing they would witness the final breakthrough during their high profile visit to Belfast on February 12.

Instead, the premiers embarrassingly departed empty-handed that evening and DUP leader Arlene Foster announced two days later that the talks had effectively collapsed.

Mrs Foster insisted that `significant gaps' remained in the discussions, and said her party was not prepared to endorse Sinn Féin's plans for an Irish language act.

Since then, firm evidence has emerged slowly but surely that a deal involving Irish and Ulster-Scots legislation, as well as a wider cultural act, was practically in place until the DUP became fearful of an internal split and walked away at the last moment.

DUP MP Gregory Campbell attempted to dismiss the rumours, declaring, `There was no agreement, accord, draft or otherwise.'

When the party's deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, was asked in a BBC interview if Mrs Foster had given a 13-page blueprint to her Sinn Féin counterpart Michelle O'Neill, he said; `That's news to me…I would be highly surprised if that happened.'

However, copies of emails between the two sides published on the journalist Eamonn Mallie's website left no room for doubt about the matter.

Mrs O'Neill, speaking in Brussels yesterday, said she was `100 per cent' clear that agreement had indeed been reached and confirmed that, following detailed negotiations, Mrs Foster had handed the document in question to her on February 9.

Mrs Foster then belatedly accepted that the papers were presented but unconvincingly maintained that it only amounted to an `exchange of ideas.'

It is not only nationalists who are bemused by the manoeuvring inside the DUP, with the Ulster Unionist chairman Lord Empey saying at the weekend that there needed to be openness and honesty over what had really happened.

Although Lord Empey said `total transparency' was needed to appreciate the full extent of the challenges ahead, it is also possible to see a small glimmer of optimism after the exchanges of recent days.

All the indications are that the DUP and Sinn Féin knew what was required to get the executive back in place and were able to engage positively, with compromises offered across the board, before ultimately producing a plan which was ready to be signed off by the respective leaders.

Relationships have obviously deteriorated since mid-February, but nothing has happened which would prevent the key figures from returning to the table in due course.

They may find ways to put the process on hold until later in the year, or even beyond, but there is an overwhelming case for getting down to business as soon as possible.

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