Northern Ireland news

DUP briefed senior loyalists on Irish language deal before collapse of talks

Michelle O'Neill insists Arlene Foster handed her the text of a draft power-sharing agreement just days before the collapse of talks

DUP figures briefed senior loyalists that a deal on the Irish language had been reached the weekend before the collapse of Stormont talks.

While the party continues to deny any agreement on an Irish language act, The Irish News understands members were involved in a series of late-night phone calls to hard-line loyalists about the content of a draft deal.

Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill insisted yesterday that Arlene Foster personally handed her the text of a draft agreement to restore power-sharing just days before the DUP leader pulled the plug on talks.

Mrs O'Neill was responding to a leaked email between senior DUP and Sinn Féin aides that suggested Mrs Foster passed her a hard copy of the plan on February 9, five days before her party's Valentine's Day walkout.

"It was a culmination of a lot of work, it was the outworking of all the negotiation which we participated in in good faith and to me when she handed me the document that was in fact the draft agreement in which we were working on," she said.

"I am 100% sure, I am crystal clear that we had a draft agreement and had found a way forward."

Mrs Foster responded by saying that while "draft papers" were exchanged on a daily basis, none had any standing.

"They were an exchange of ideas between negotiating teams," she said.

"I can categorically state there was never any agreement reached."

However, The Irish News understands that senior loyalists with links to both the UDA and UVF were briefed that a deal had been reached, with the message that it would "only enshrine in legislation" rights already available to Irish speakers.

One UDA-linked loyalist said they were told of the agreement in a late night phone call on the Sunday prior to the arrival of prime minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Stormont.

They were briefed that it wasn't an act, standalone or otherwise, but only amounted to setting existing rights into devolved legislation.

"We were asked to trust the party, that they'd reached a deal but it wasn't an Irish language act and that Sinn Féin would not be getting any of their other demands," a senior loyalist said.

"We were asked to reassure our people that there would be no rolling over to republicans."

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