Richard Haass Talks: If this was the final deal I'd have steam coming out my ears, says Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson has dramatically lowered the prospects of agreement in the Haass talks – but insisted he has not given up hope of a deal.
After first sight of a draft document prepared by the American diplomat and his team, the DUP leader said he could not recommend the proposals on any of the three areas – flags, parades and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.
The First Minister said he would have "steam coming out of my ears" if the 30-page document was the final word.
And he claimed that, based on the proposals as they stand, the issue of flying the Union flag was going backwards for unionists.
Standing on the steps of Stormont, Mr Robinson also denied playing politics by dismissing the present proposals so that real progress can be claimed later in the week, when negotiations are due to close.
Ahead of two days of so-called hothouse talks to take place tomorrow and Thursday, unionists appeared substantially more unhappy with the shape of the plan than nationalists.
Both Mr Robinson and Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt – who together set up the Unionist Forum earlier this year – voiced dismay, yet insisted they could not break the confidentiality of their talks with Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance.
But Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness pointedly told the unionist leaders they should "cool their jets" – echoing the phrase used by Mr Robinson over Sinn Fein's reaction to the DUP U-turn over the Maze peace centre – while the SDLP said the proposals had "strength and depth".
Mr Robinson was flanked by his party's key negotiators, Jeffrey Donaldson and Orange Order chaplain Rev Mervyn Gibson, as well as deputy leader Nigel Dodds and junior minister Jonathan Bell as he admitted "surprise" over the draft document.
He said: "If I thought that was the final paper, there would be steam coming out of my ears.
"But it's not the final paper. There is still a lot of work to do. We are not going to endorse any proposals we believe are unworkable or unhelpful.
"Nobody is throwing the towel in at this stage, we are just saying there is not a set of proposals that we can support or agree to, or recommend."
Mr Robinson had planned to call a wider meeting of his party's MLAs and other senior figures to brief them, but said he had postponed it.
He said he believed that at this stage Dr Haass – who he and Mr McGuinness appointed – had included proposals from other parties in the paper which he knew did not have more broad support.
And party sources afterwards suggested the "paint would be coming off the wall" when the DUP team meets Haass later today.
Mr McGuinness took to Twitter to comment: "Let's prevent the paint lifting off the wall, the more excitable amongst us should cool their jets!!"
But the DUP chief's objections were underpinned earlier when Mr Nesbitt emerged from reading the paper, which had expanded from an 18-page version last week.
Referring to Margaret Thatcher's famous "out out out" response to the All Ireland Forum, he said that overall things were "more out, out, out and we're a long way from in, in, in".
"I don't think it'll be any secret to people that flags has emerged as the thorniest issue; that remains the case in terms of this first draft. You can expect that there are issues that are being floated, perhaps that you have to accept are there today, but hopefully will not be there tomorrow."
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell (left) said: "There will be three or four days of intense debate, discussing, dissecting and deciding exactly what some of the words mean, because there's some very robust ideas and ideas that we're hopeful about.
"We have to then get to the stage where all the parties are in sync on all of these things, and that will be difficult."
As the parties pored over the paper in their rooms near Stormont, Dr Haass and his vice chair Meghan O'Sullivan were in London, where they had separate sessions with David Cameron and Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, along with officials.
A number of the Executive parties were involved in bilaterals last night after spending the day studying the draft paper details.
The SDLP confirmed it was arranging meetings with the DUP and Sinn Fein, without the presence of Dr Haass.