‘Solid progress’ in DUP-SF talks – Foster

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(Left to right), Arlene Foster, James Brokenshire and Michele O’Neill, along with Irish senator Frank Feighan at an Ulster Fry Breakfast at the Conservative Party conference

DUP leader Arlene Foster has said “solid progress” has been made in talks with Sinn Féin but “differences remain”.

Speaking at an event at the Conservative Party conference, she said discussions had intensified.

Sinn Féin’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said a breakthrough was possible.

She warned that the government could not cobble together a deal acceptable to the DUP and shoehorn Sinn Féin in.

Speaking at the same event, James Brokenshire said Westminster may soon have to set a budget for Northern Ireland.

‘Coming down the track’

The Northern Ireland secretary told those attending the event the move is “coming down the track quite rapidly”.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said it was her party’s goal to see power-sharing restored.

However, Sinn Féin’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said that was dependent on rights being guaranteed.

The leaders were attending the Champ Ulster Fry Breakfast, a regular fringe event held at both the Labour and Conservative conferences.

Mrs Foster and Mrs O’Neill clashed over the issue of an Irish language act.

Asked if Sinn Féin want Irish language legislation to make Northern Ireland look less British, Mrs O’Neill said “the north isn’t British”.

That prompted Arlene Foster to say she did not want the event to turn into a row but “Northern Ireland is British”.

Tweeting from the event, however, Mrs Foster said that progress is being made at the talks aimed at restoring the Stormont executive though “differences remain”.

“Any agreement must command support of unionists and nationalists alike,” she added.

Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive collapsed in January and progress in the ongoing talks will be among the topics discussed.

It is the first Conservative conference since Theresa May and Arlene Foster agreed their confidence and supply arrangement at Westminster.

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Reuters

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It is the first Conservative conference since the DUP-Tory pact was established in June.

Mrs Foster said that June’s election was an historic one for the DUP and that it has given the party significant opportunities, but that “London will not be a distraction” from what the DUP needs to do in Belfast.

She said: “It is not a choice for the DUP between influence in London and executive power in Belfast.

“What will deliver the most for Northern Ireland is both operating in tandem and that has been, is and will be, our goal until it is realised.”


Analysis, by BBC NI political editor Mark Devenport

This year, contributions from Arlene Foster, Michelle O’Neill and Secretary of State James Brokenshire may provide some sense of how much substance there is to recent optimism that the main Stormont parties might, at last, be ready to overcome their differences.

This is the first Tory conference since Theresa May and Arlene Foster agreed their confidence and supply arrangement at Westminster.

In the light of that, a DUP reception tonight is likely to attract a lot of attention from Conservative activists and the press.


In her speech, Mrs O’Neill called for Northern Ireland to be granted a special status within the EU and to say that the DUP-Conservative confidence and supply arrangement “poses real challenges”.

In relation to talks aimed at restoring the Stormont executive, she said: “The British government should not think that they can cobble together a deal acceptable to the DUP and then shoe-horn Sinn Féin into acquiescing to it. That will not happen.

“I believe a political breakthrough is entirely possible, but only we can together grasp the opportunity to guarantee the right of every citizen to their democratic social, economic, civil and political rights.”

Later on Tuesday, Mrs Foster will be joined by DUP MPs to host a reception at the conference centre.

It is the second consecutive year which the party has hosted an event at the Conservative conference.

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