The DUP is sounding out some of its members on the shape of a potential deal with Sinn Féin, amid mounting speculation that the two sides may return to power-sharing as early as next week.
Several sources told the News Letter that an informal consultation process – seemingly involving phone calls rather than meetings – was going on within the party and would continue over the weekend as the outline of a potential deal is put to selected party members.
However, in a statement this morning the DUP denied that it was engaged in a consultation process “at this present time” and said that “the notion that an agreement is imminent and that the Assembly will meet next week has no basis in fact given the present state of the talks”.
It added that “a desire in the media to have as much transparency as possible and for the details of the discussions to be discussed and debated in a very public manner...has to be balanced against the need to provide space to conduct business in order to ascertain whether agreement is possible and if so the nature and detail of such an agreement.”
Last night the Britsh-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which James Brokenshire had been due to address on Monday, said that he had pulled out of the event “due to on-going talks in Northern Ireland”.
And last night Sinn Féin said that its Ard Comhairle is to meet this morning in Dublin.
The party did not state what it was meeting to discuss, but the body would have to approve any deal which the party’s negotiators had struck with the DUP or give them approval for a final negotiating position.
There were rumours in the Stormont corridors about a recall of the Assembly on Thursday – the first time it would have met since March.
One DUP member said that he did not know what was going on in the talks as they had been restricted to a very small group of people on both sides.
Other DUP sources spoke of a firm belief that the party is on the cusp of a deal or has already privately struck an agreement with Sinn Féin and were gloomy about how they would be able to sell such a deal if it involves an Irish language act or any similar legislation for Irish.
But other party figures were more sceptical and cautioned that a deal still remains unlikely in the short term.
When asked for an update on the talks last night, a DUP spokeswoman referred the News Letter to Arlene Foster’s statement on Thursday, saying that it reflected the party’s position.
In that statement, Mrs Foster hit out at unspecified unionists for “scaremongerging” about what may be going on in the talks.
Mrs Foster’s statement was given to the News Letter on Thursday night in response to comments from the Orange Order’s grand secretary, Mervyn Gibson, in which he rebutted speculation that the Order could benefit in some way from a deal as an attempt to counter-balance Irish language legislation.
Mr Gibson said that the Order – which has spoken out strongly against an Irish language act – will not be used as a “bargaining chip” to get any deal over the line.
Yesterday on BBC Radio Foyle the DUP MLA Gary Middleton was asked whether Mrs Foster had been referring to the Orange Order when she hit out at unidentified “scaremongering”.
He replied: “I don’t believe it’s particularly aimed at the Orange Order” and went on to say that he was a member of the Order himself.
However, despite the apparent thaw in relations between Northern Ireland’s two dominant parties which has seen the DUP and Sinn Féin locked in talks all week, Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy yesterday set out a robust vision of what his party is wanting from the talks to restore devolution.
In a statement denouncing Mícheál Martin, leader of Sinn Féin’s southern rival Fianna Fáil, for what he said was “an entirely negative role” in relation to Northern Ireland, Mr Murphy said: “His electoral ambitions and petty party political concerns have blinded him to the failure or the DUP and British government to honour agreements and respect the rights of Irish speakers, the LGBTQ community, and the victims of the conflict who have been denied inquests.
“Mícheál Martin might be prepared to accept this and allegations of corruption in government. Sinn Féin are not.”
In her statement on Thursday, Mrs Foster said that efforts were continuing to secure the restoration of devolution through the ongoing talks “but much more work is required”.
She went on: “Since March the DUP has stood ready to re-establish an Executive. The decisions by others to block that restoration has led to the talks which have continued over many months. We continue to work towards resolving the outstanding issues.
“People will welcome the fact that solid progress has been made but substantial issues remain to be resolved and much more work will be required if we are to reach agreement
“It is vital that we move forward on a basis where one culture or language is not elevated above another in Northern Ireland. If we are to build a truly shared future then it must be on an equal footing and not built on a basis of cultural domination. That is an approach we have made clear over many months and it remains the case.
“ We all should be mindful that whilst issues of language and culture are important, whilst the formation of an Executive remains blocked it remains impossible to have a local input on key issues impacting our health service, education and the range of services which are vital to people’s lives here.”
She then went on to express “disappointment” at “some comments from fellow unionists who are not involved in the talks” and added: “They should cease from their scaremongering. I well recall the shameful way some tried to frighten people when we were negotiating the return of justice powers to Stormont. Their predictions of doom were proved false back then.
“Unionists know the DUP will stand up for the Union and the identity we all cherish. Those who peddle scare-stories are doing the work of those who oppose the Union.
“The DUP will always do what is in the best interests of Northern Ireland and we will stand strong for the people of Northern Ireland as we seek agreement that both unionists and nationalists can support.”
Meanwhile, TUV leader Jim Allister has raised questions about how the Republic’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, came to be granted the use of a room in Stormont’s Parliament Buildings.
Mr Allister has tabled a priority written question to the Assembly Commission – the cross-party group of MLAs who are responsible for the running of the Assembly building – asking them to list the rooms in Parliament Buildings that were used by, accommodated or facilitated “meetings with representatives of the Government of the Republic of Ireland”.
Mr Allister, who vocally objected to Mr Coveney being given the room, also asked on whose authority the rooms had been used by the Irish diplomats.
Meanwhile, the SDLP’s Patsy McGlone is reportedly the favourite to succeed the DUP’s Robin Newton as Assembly Speaker if devolution returns.
The Belfast Telegraph reported that the MLA for Mid Ulster, who has served as a deputy speaker and is widely regarded across the chamber, is the most likely MLA to take the symbolic post as the legislature’s figurehead.