Odds on Stormont deal lengthen after Sinn Fein and DUP leaders clash at Tory conference
Mood music discouraging as Foster and O'Neill lock horns over NI's British status
Unionist politicians have said hopes of a deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein are fading after an exchange between Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill at the Tory conference.
The two leaders clashed over whether Northern Ireland was British, with Mrs Foster dismissing as "ludicrous" Mrs O'Neill's claim that it wasn't.
Sinn Fein's Northern leader said her party wouldn't be "shoe-horned" into a deal cobbled together by the Tories to appease the DUP. Mrs Foster later described Mrs O'Neill's tone as "quite aggressive".
The two women made a rare joint appearance at the Ulster fry breakfast event. They shared a table for breakfast and then sat side-by-side on the stage in Manchester Town Hall.
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said the exchanges indicated that a deal wasn't imminent.
He said: "I didn't see or hear anything positive that would give an indication that devolution was coming back anytime soon. There is no indication that Sinn Fein and the DUP are moving towards a solution. Any optimism is fading away.
"We didn't hear anything new and Michelle O'Neill managed to suck the atmosphere out of the room with her comments, but maybe that was deliberate.
"It is disappointing that nearly 20 years after the Belfast Agreement the people of Northern Ireland's right to self-determination is still a mystery to Sinn Fein."
Mr Swann said the Good Friday Agreement unequivocally stated that Northern Ireland was British for as long as people here wanted it to be.
After Mrs O'Neill's remarks at the breakfast event, DUP MP Ian Paisley tweeted: "Hope slips further away."
When asked if an Irish Language Act would make Northern Ireland less British, Mrs O'Neill replied: "The North isn't British."
Mrs Foster declared: "I don't want this to turn into a row, but Northern Ireland is British."
One Conservative activist told the pair he hoped they would become known as the 'Chuckle sisters', a reference to the Chuckle Brothers tag given in recognition of the warm relationship between the Rev Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness.
Both women said that talks to restore power-sharing had intensified, but Mrs O'Neill warned: "The British Government should not think that they can cobble together a deal acceptable to the DUP and then shoe-horn Sinn Fein into acquiescing to it.
"That will not happen. The shape of a deal is very clear. The two governments know this. So do the DUP and the other parties."
She said the DUP's 'confidence and supply' deal with the Tories presented "real challenges".
However, she insisted that an agreement was still "entirely possible".
Asked whether Mrs Foster must stand aside in order for a deal to be reached, Mrs O'Neill said that until all outstanding issues were dealt with they wouldn't "get to (the) position of Arlene standing aside".
When asked if she had been too high-handed with republicans while in office, the DUP leader replied: "Anybody who looks back at their life and doesn't say, 'Oh, I should have done that in a different way', would be telling you a lie.
"I don't think I was high-handed but, of course, it's for others to decide if I was or not."
Mrs Foster said that while "solid progress" had been made in the talks "differences do remain".
She stressed that, despite holding the balance of power at Westminster, her party wanted a Stormont deal.
"While our electoral strength in the House of Commons is now widely recognised, I have always made it clear that our important role in London will not be a distraction from what we need to do in Belfast," she said.
"It is not a choice for the DUP between influence in London and executive power in Belfast. What is in the best interests of Northern Ireland is operating in tandem and this remains our goal."
She later told the BBC that the Stormont talks were "coming to the end game" and would continue for "a week to 10 days at the most". She said the Irish language wasn't a threat to the Union but maintained that any deal must not be one-sided.
While Mrs Foster said Northern Ireland must leave the EU with Britain, Mrs O'Neill called for it to be granted special status.
TUV leader Jim Allister said progress could be made at the talks only "if the DUP performs a monumental climb-down on Irish with all the ramifications that will have for the British identity of Northern Ireland and the ability of non-Irish speakers to obtain Civil Service employment".