Belfast Telegraph

DUP leader denies Dodds was in room when talks document was passed on

By Suzanne Breen

Arlene Foster has branded as a "complete and utter lie" a claim that her deputy leader Nigel Dodds was in the room when a draft agreement to restore power-sharing was passed between herself and Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill.

The DUP leader was responding after BBC presenter Stephen Nolan said a senior politician in the party had told his show that Mr Dodds was in the room when the document was exchanged.

The source told the BBC that while final details had yet to be agreed, there was a broad agreement, including on Irish language provisions.

The DUP insider told Mr Nolan that Mr Dodds was present when Mrs Foster gave the document to Ms O'Neill.

Speaking in Brussels yesterday after talks with the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, Mrs Foster described the claims as "a complete and utter lie".

She said: "I can clarify categorically that Nigel Dodds did not attend any meeting where any document was handed over to Sinn Fein.

"It is disappointing that there are some people who want to sow discord amongst unionists when there is none."

Mrs Foster claimed the latest round of talks had failed because Sinn Fein had wanted a "one-sided" deal.

"In a divided society, any deal must be fair and balanced. There was never any agreement reached," she said.

"Papers were exchanged, but a paper on the Irish language had no more standing than a paper on Sinn Fein ministers implementing the military covenant.

"On the final Friday of the talks, I released a statement saying there was more work to do. The selectively leaked papers show there were square brackets showing no agreement.

"Commentators even concluded there was no agreement. Regardless of spin or document titles, the evidence points to there being no agreement."

Mrs Foster said that with "little to no prospect" of devolution being restored soon, she was "focused on getting decisions made for everyone in Northern Ireland through Westminster".

Arguing over "the scraps of negotiations" ignored the serious issues that need addressed, she added.

Mrs Foster said if DUP members had briefed hardline loyalists linked to paramilitary groups about the contents of the disputed draft plan to restore Stormont, they were not doing it on her or the party's behalf.

The DUP leader was responding to an Irish News report claiming loyalists with links to the UDA and UVF were briefed that a deal had been reached.

The newspaper claimed the loyalists were told by the DUP that legislation would "only enshrine in legislation" rights already available to Irish speakers.

When asked about the report during a Press conference in Brussels, Mrs Foster did not deny briefings took place, but insisted she had no knowledge of them.

"If people were briefing organisations, they were doing it on their own behalf," she said.

"Certainly, they weren't doing it on behalf of me or the DUP.

"I am not saying it didn't take place, I am saying they didn't do it on my behalf or on behalf of the DUP."

The reports were the latest challenges to the DUP's ongoing insistence that it had not reached a draft agreement with Sinn Fein last month to see devolution return to Stormont.

The party has been accused of getting cold feet at the eleventh hour in the face of an internal revolt from grassroots members angry about potential concessions to Sinn Fein on the vexed dispute over the Irish language.

The DUP has vehemently denied its negotiating team agreed a draft deal prior to the Valentine's Day break-up of talks.

Belfast Telegraph

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