Belfast Telegraph

Poots: SF don't need Varadkar and May to hold their hands

By Suzanne Breen

The DUP has dismissed Sinn Fein's demand for the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach to join the Stormont talks, saying that republicans "don't need anyone to hold their hands".

Sinn Fein had called on Theresa May and Leo Varadkar to directly engage in the talks as a "matter of urgency" to inject the "step change" needed to secure an agreement.

As the talks continued yesterday at Stormont, Sinn Fein negotiator John O'Dowd said that the DUP's deal with the Tories at Westminster had "emboldened and entrenched" the party's position, making the prospect of a deal less likely.

He said that the two governments must press the DUP to give ground on key issues, including an Irish Language Act.

"As co-guarantor of the agreements, it's time for the British Prime Minister Theresa May and the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to take direct responsibility," he added.

However, DUP negotiator Edwin Poots brushed aside Mr O'Dowd's appeal.

"I think Sinn Fein can do the business very quickly, they know what's required of them - they don't need anybody to hold their hands," he said. "They just need to sit upstairs, make the decisions that need to be made and come and tell us of those decisions so we can get on with the business."

Mr Poots said that Thursday's missed deadline meant that Stormont was now "operating on a 95% budget, which is essentially a 5% cut across all departments". He claimed that this represented "far greater austerity than any Conservative ever imposed upon Northern Ireland", and he urged Sinn Fein to "get moving so we can get government back in place".

Mr Poots added: "Whilst we understand that Irish language is hugely important to Sinn Fein - health, education, jobs, the economy, infrastructure, the environment, agriculture - all of these issues are hugely important to us (and) the public."

Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy responded angrily: "The DUP are in absolutely no position to lecture anyone in relation to the provision of public services when they have taken a decision to keep in power a government which has taken more than a billion pounds off our ability to finance public sector services."

Mr O'Dowd (right with Declan Kearney) described progress at the talks as "snail-like", adding: "We will stay here as long as there is a glimmer of hope that there will be success in these talks. But we are realists and we are experienced negotiators and we know there needs to be a step change - hence the reason we are calling on the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister to become directly involved."

In response to Sinn Fein's call, a Downing Street statement said that Secretary of State James Brokenshire was "on the ground in Belfast" and would continue to "engage intensively" with the parties over the weekend.

It stressed that Mrs May had already met the five local parties and would remain in close contact with both the Secretary of State and Dublin.

With just 48 hours until the new talks deadline expires, there are few signs that the DUP and Sinn Fein can reach an agreement.

Mr Brokenshire is due to make a statement at Westminster on Monday. He can extend the deadline, call another Assembly election, or reintroduce some form of direct rule.

The outgoing head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service Sir Malcolm McKibbin is set to continue his role as independent chair of the talks. While he formally retired yesterday, the parties asked him to stay on to help steer the negotiations.

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