Monday night’s supposed deadline for a DUP-Sinn Féin deal long forgotten, the two parties talked throughout yesterday before finishing for the night before 8pm, with plans to restart discussions today.
There was no immediate comment from Secretary of State James Brokenshire – who had set Monday night’s latest ‘deadline’ before extending it to yesterday – but it appeared that he was prepared to allow the process to continue into today.
The BBC reported that Mr Brokenshire will today address the House of Commons about the situation but the NIO declined to confirm or deny if that was the case. It was Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator, Conor Murphy – not the party’s Stormont leader, Michelle O’Neill – who spoke to the media yesterday.
He chided the SDLP for its criticism of the failure to strike a deal with the DUP and challenged Colum Eastwood’s party to set out the Sinn Féin demands on which he was prepared to compromise in order to secure Stormont’s return.
By contrast, the DUP was silent yesterday, neither speaking publicly to the media nor issuing a statement about what was going on.
Echoing the language of the DUP at the weekend, Mr Murphy appeared to dampen speculation of an imminent breakthrough by insisting that Sinn Féin was not prepared for a deal “at any price”.
Speaking to the media in Stormont’s Great Hall flanked by party colleagues but without Gerry Adams or Michelle O’Neill being present, he said that it was “very key time” in the talks process.
The former IRA man said: “The people who are criticising us for standing firm in these negotiations need to explain what they mean by ‘get a deal at any price’.
“For our part in Sinn Fein we are here engaged, not on party political interests but actually on issues that are rights for people who support us and for many, many people who don’t support us.
“We are here to protect people’s rights and ensure that any legislation which is put back in place is done so on the basis of the Good Friday Agreement.”
And, in an explicit threat to the government about the consequences of it bypassing Stormont to legislate at Westminster for a Stormont budget, Mr Murphy said that if Secretary of State James Brokenshire does that then “this phase of the talks process is over”.
However, despite Sinn Féin’s annoyance at the prospect of Westminster stepping in to deal with such a key devolved issue, Mr Brokenshire has said that the Northern Ireland Civil Service has said that it needs to urgently see a budget in place.
Civil servants have been operating without either democratic accountability or a budget for seven months and Mr Brokenshire has said that they have told him that they will literally begin running out of money in coming weeks if no budget is put in place – something which is impossible at Stormont if the DUP and Sinn Fein cannot form an Executive.
Yesterday the BBC reported that plans have been made to begin work on a budget bill in the House of Commons in the week beginning 13 November.
Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra programme last night, Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said that after talking to the government about the talks – from which his party, the UUP and the SDLP are excluded – it seemed that “things are possible, if not probable”.
As on Monday, the Republic’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, was present at Stormont for the talks yesterday.
He tweeted that “everyone [is] working hard to get a deal across the line”.
Meanwhile, the UUP yesterday warned against any ‘side deals’ as part of the talks process.
Referring to the Secretary of State’s Monday night statement in which he referred to unspecified “certain additional requests of the UK government”, Mr Swann said that “clarity must be given as to what Sinn Féin and the DUP have asked for that warrants consideration from the government, and if these demands are for the benefit of Northern Ireland and its position in the United Kingdom or selfish party interests instead”.
He added: “The people of Northern Ireland have a right to know who made these requests. Are they joint Sinn Fein/DUP shopping lists or are both parties putting additional separate demands on the table?”
Mr Swann said: “We have seen in the past how under the table deals have facilitated despicable arrangements such as the OTR letters to satisfy Sinn Féin demands.
“This process must not be allowed to facilitate further distortions of the legal process or to provide comfort to former terrorists.
“Nor should it be used to cement a hierarchy of victims where the focus remains on the state, army, police and intelligence services instead of the terrorists and their apologists.”