DUP's Foster rejects Sinn Fein claims she handed over draft deal as toxic fall-out grows
DUP leader Arlene Foster has denied Sinn Fein claims that she personally handed over a draft deal to restore powersharing in Northern Ireland just days before pulling the plug on talks.
Mrs Foster moved to counter an assertion by Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill that her unionist counterpart gave her a hard copy of a proposed agreement on Friday, February 9, five days before the DUP's Valentine's Day walkout.
Mrs O'Neill's account came after a leaked email between senior DUP and Sinn Fein aides suggested Mrs Foster passed her such a document.
The email exchange, published last week by news website EamonnMallie.com, challenged the DUP's ongoing insistence that it had not agreed the framework of a deal with Sinn Fein that would have seen devolution return to Stormont.
The party has been accused of getting cold feet 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.
Mrs Foster said she exchanged numerous papers with Mrs O'Neill during the negotiation process but none amounted to a draft agreement.
"During the course of those negotiations, draft papers were exchanged between Michelle O'Neill and I on an almost daily basis," she said.
"I have a lever arch folder containing them.
"Some related to the Irish language, others related to treatment of innocent victims and others to how Sinn Fein ministers would implement the military covenant.
"None of those draft papers had any standing.
"They were an exchange of ideas between negotiating teams. I can categorically state there was never any agreement reached.
"Even the documentation selectively leaked by Sinn Fein shows square brackets, thus demonstrating there was no agreement.
"Even commentators have recognised the document in circulation was not agreed.
"Indeed, on the Friday in question, I released a statement saying, 'Good progress made but more work still to do'. Neither was any draft agreement handed over by me to Sinn Fein.
"Given the state of play, it is highly surprising that such a statement should be made."
Mrs Foster said arguing on the "negotiation scraps" meant serious issues facing the region in the absence of devolution were being ignored.
Earlier yesterday, Mrs O'Neill was asked about the contents of the leaked email after holding talks with EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels.
"I can confirm that Arlene Foster did hand me a hard copy of a document which was then subsequently emailed to Stephen McGlade who works with me in the office," she said.
Sinn Fein's Northern leader added: "It was a culmination of a lot of work, it was the outworking of all the negotiation which we participated in in good faith and to me when she handed me the document that was in fact the draft agreement in which we were working on.
"We know where we had got to, we had after 14 months found a way forward, there was a basis to restore the institutions.
"So only the DUP leadership, and whoever is in charge of the DUP, can talk about who actually and why they failed to close the deal.
"I am 100% sure, I am crystal clear that we had a draft agreement and had found a way forward."
Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley declined to be drawn on the ongoing round of claim and counter-claim around the existence of a draft deal.
The Staffordshire Moorlands MP was questioned about Mrs O'Neill's assertion during a visit to Londonderry.
"It wouldn't be fair for me to comment or speculate on what happened," said the Secretary of State.
"All I know is there was never a final agreement.
"But what I do want to see is those parties come together to get back round the table and let's get devolved government back up and running at Stormont," she added.