DUP leader Arlene Foster has categorically denied claims she personally handed Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill a draft deal to restore devolution.
It comes after Mrs O’Neill alleged that Mrs Foster handed a hard copy of the mooted agreement to her in person on February 9, five days before the Stormont talks process came to an acrimonious end.
She said the document was the result of hours of negotiation and she was “100% sure” that a deal had been reached.
But Mrs Foster rejected the SF deputy leader’s version of events and insisted no draft agreement was reached.
The DUP leader added that while many draft papers had been exchanged between the two parties “on an almost daily basis” during the negotiations, “none of those had any standing”.
Mrs Foster said: “They were an exchange of ideas between negotiating teams. I have a lever arch folder containing them.”
Among these “ideas”, according to Mrs Foster, were draft papers pertaining to the Irish language, the treatment of victims and how Sinn Fein ministers would implement the military covenant in NI.
The row between Mrs Foster and Mrs O’Neill comes after a leaked email appeared to counter the DUP’s continued insistence that it had not agreed the framework of a deal with Sinn Fein that would have salvaged power-sharing.
The email exchange between senior DUP and Sinn Fein aids, published last week by journalist and broadcaster Eamonn Mallie, states that Mrs Foster passed a hard copy of a mooted agreement to Mrs O’Neill.
The parties disagree on whether a draft deal existed before talks broke down.
The DUP has been accused of getting cold feet on the deal following an internal revolt from grassroots members angry about potential concessions to Sinn Fein on the vexed dispute over the Irish language.
But in a statement released this evening, Mrs Foster said: “I can categorically state there was never any agreement reached.
“Even the documentation selectively leaked by Sinn Fein shows square brackets thus demonstrating there was no agreement.
“Neither was any draft agreement handed over by me to Sinn Fein. Given the state of play, it is highly surprising that such a statement should be made.”
Mrs Foster said the latest round of talks failed because Sinn Fein wanted a “one-sided deal rather than a fair and balanced settlement”, adding that she was willing to form a government “without any preconditions”.
The DUP leader said she is now “focused on delivering for Northern Ireland through Westminster”, and urged the government to set a budget and also make key decisions about the Province’s roads, schools and hospitals.
“Arguing over the negotiation scraps ignores the serious issues which need addressed,” she added.
Mrs O’Neill was asked about the leaked email after holding talks with EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels yesterday.
She said the document was a result of hours of negotiation.
“It was a culmination of a lot of work, it was the outworking of all the negotiation which we participated 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,” the SF deputy leader added.
Publishing the email chain on his website, Mr Mallie said it provided “incontrovertible proof” of Sinn Fein’s version of events.
The correspondence, under the subject ‘draft agreement’, was between the DUP advisor Philip Weir Sinn Fein’s Stephen McGlade, who is head of Mrs O’Neill’s office.
It stated: “Attached is latest overall text we have. I told Conor (Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy) would send u through.
“Arlene gave Michelle hard copy earlier but have been a couple of small tweaks since then to copy she had.”
Earlier, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds rubbished the claims and said he had no knowledge of Mrs Foster giving Mrs O’Neill a draft deal.
Asked on BBC NI’s The View last Thursday if Mrs Foster had given the 13-page document to Mrs O’Neill, Mr Dodds said “that’s news to me”.