Guarded optimism of breakthrough in DUP-Sinn Féin talks

Coveney says negotiations at a ‘sensitive’ stage with possibility of deal by weekend

 Robin Newton: he issued a statement to say he had “never been appointed to any position with Charter NI”.   Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Robin Newton: he issued a statement to say he had “never been appointed to any position with Charter NI”. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

There was guarded but growing optimism in Belfast on Wednesday night that the DUP and Sinn Féin are close to a deal that would restore the Northern Executive and Assembly.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney provided the most positive comments to date about the DUP-Sinn Féin talks when he told the Seanad on Wednesday of the possibility of an imminent deal.

“This week is an important week in the context of Northern Ireland, and I hope we will have a successful outcome by the end of the week,” he said.

Another senior political source told The Irish Times that the DUP and Sinn Féin, after three days of intensive talks this week, appeared “close to a breakthrough”, and that significant progress had been made on the Irish language issue.

While Mr Coveney saw potential for a deal by the weekend there was also a sense in Belfast on Wednesday night that the talks might run into early next week before a definitive statement, but that the negotiations could not continue much beyond early next week.

Sinn Féin and the DUP have been attempting to reconcile their competing positions on the Irish language, with Sinn Féin demanding a standalone act and the DUP requiring more composite “cultural” legislation that would also involve support for Ulster Scots and possibly the Orange Order.

It is understood that the main focus now in relation to language is devising some form of linked legislation that would somehow reconcile the opposing demands of the DUP and Sinn Féin, and which could be sold to their different support bases.

Conradh na Gaeilge

Senior political sources said efforts have been made to try to bring Irish language promotion agency Conradh na Gaeilge on board a deal that would be acceptable to both Sinn Féin and the DUP. A Conradh source said it was still insisting on a standalone Irish language act, although talks were continuing.

There was general agreement from political sources with Mr Coveney’s comment that the talks were are at a “sensitive” point.

One immediate concern is over an allegation that the DUP Stormont speaker and East Belfast Assembly member Robin Newton misled the Assembly over his role with Charter NI, a community-based support group in east Belfast, north Down and Ards which has links to the loyalist paramilitary group the Ulster Defence Association.

In a statement to the Assembly last November, Mr Newton said while he had offered advice to the organisation he did not hold a position as an official adviser to Charter NI.

BBC’s Spotlight programme on Tuesday night, however, cited a number of Charter NI documents which identified Mr Newton as an “adviser”.

On Wednesday Mr Newton issued a statement to say he had “never been appointed to any position with Charter NI”.

He also said he would be standing down in his £87,000 per annum role as speaker if and when the Assembly was restored. The Assembly still has a speaker even though it is not sitting.

Allegations

In the wake of the allegations, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance called on Mr Newton to immediately resign, insisting his position was now “untenable”.

The North Belfast Assembly member and Sinn Féin chief whip Carál Ní Chuilín was asked if the allegation could impede the Sinn Féin-DUP negotiations.

“I don’t think anyone can ignore the serious concerns that were raised in the Spotlight programme,” she said.

“I don’t think anybody can ignore that. We have been consistent in saying that there needs to be integrity and understanding.”

The Stormont powersharing administration broke down in January after the late deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned in a row with the DUP over the botched Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.