Northern Ireland news

Deal speculation quelled as differences remain between DUP and Sinn Féin

Sinn Féin said differences remained between it and the DUP. Picture by Mal McCann

SINN Féin said differences last night remained between it and the DUP despite speculation of an imminent deal emerging from the Stormont negotiations.

The two parties held discussions in the afternoon and are expected to resume meetings on Monday, following today's special ard fheis in Dublin where Mary Lou McDonald is to succeed Gerry Adams as Sinn Féin leader.

Both Secretary of State Karen Bradley and Tánaiste Simon Coveney were in Belfast to oversee an intensification of the latest phase of talks, which began last month.

All five main assembly parties had been schedule to attend a round-table meeting at Stormont yesterday, but it was cancelled at short notice.

The SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance were ready to attend the afternoon session but were told by the two governments that it would not proceed as the DUP and Sinn Féin were locked in talks elsewhere in the building.

News that negotiations had intensified just 24 hours ahead of Sinn Féin's leadership changeover sparked speculation over a potential breakthrough.

However, a Sinn Féin spokesman last night insisted there was still some way to go before the two big parties could cut a deal to restore the Stormont executive.

"Progress has been made in the talks but there are outstanding issues to be resolved," the spokesman said.

"Talks are continuing and should conclude next week."

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said yesterday evening the talks were not "sorted".

"We have made some progress but there are still considerable obstacles but as I said to our unionist friends, this is the last chance agreement," he said.

"They need to embrace the need for rights for everybody and agree a space where we can all moderate our differences."

The main sticking point preventing the restoration of the institutions has been legislation to protect and promote the Irish language.

Sinn Féin wants a stand-alone acht na Gaeilge but DUP leader Arlene Foster has previously ruled out such a measure and it is thought her party will only accommodate an act which also incorporates Ulster Scots.

Mrs Bradley and the tánaiste spoke with the three smaller parties at yesterday's truncated meeting.

According to sources who spoke to the Press Association, Mrs Bradley said she understood they were frustrated with the turn of events, to which UUP leader Robin Swann apparently replied he was not there for a "counselling session".

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood is understood to have told Mrs Bradley she had his number and to give him a call when she intended on having "inclusive" talks.

A UUP source said: "Sinn Fein and the DUP are clearly running these talks and the two governments are just bystanders."

Later, Mr Eastwood said it was clear the negotiations were an "exclusive two-party process".

He said his party was not at Stormont "to window dress".

"I've told both governments when the two-party process is concluded and they are ready to engage in five-party negotiations, the SDLP will be ready to negotiate," he said.

"With a hard Brexit coming down the tracks that will cause economic, social and political chaos to our island, I also stressed to the Irish and British governments the need for the formation of a government urgently.

"Everyone across these islands is talking about the threat of a hard border, yet here we have a political vacuum."

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Northern Ireland news