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NIO refutes Sinn Fein claims it struck side deal with London on legacy inquest funds

By Rebecca Black

No side deals were made during the latest round of talks to restore power-sharing, the Northern Ireland Office has insisted.

The denial came after DUP leader Arlene Foster said her party had no knowledge of a claim by Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly on Thursday that his party had secured agreement with the UK Government to release funding to progress legacy inquests.

Speaking on BBC's The View programme alongside Mr Kelly, DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he was not aware of any legacy deal.

And yesterday Sinn Fein's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill said: "The British Government did commit to releasing the inquest funding and to go ahead with the consultation, minus the amnesty proposal for British State Forces."

But Mrs Foster insisted no one in the DUP had been aware of inquest funding being progressed, and said she intended to raise the matter with Secretary of State Karen Bradley.

"It would be astonishing if the Government granted funding for legacy inquests in the absence of an overall agreement to progress all elements of the Stormont House Agreement," she said.

In response to the DUP leader, the NIO said: "There are no side deals.

"It is ultimately the responsibility of the parties to reach an agreement and we have been working intensively with them over the past 13 months to support them in this process.

"Regrettably, no agreement was reached."

DUP MP Gregory Campbell downplayed the row, and said his party had taken the right decision, adding: "We all now need to move on.

"Sinn Fein has made a number of claims. Some sections of the media should know better in distinguishing between 'claims' and facts.

"A so-called side deal on inquests is the latest claim.

"The Government has now stated there are no side deals. Another spurious claim by an increasingly desperate Sinn Fein."

It came as the DUP faced criticism from rivals following withering comments from Baroness Paisley, widow of the DUP leader and former First Minister Ian Paisley, claiming that Mrs Foster should have stepped aside last year over the RHI scandal.

After meeting in Belfast, the Ulster Unionist Party claimed the leadership of unionism "cannot be left in the hands of the DUP".

"Since late 2016 the DUP has played fast and loose with the future of unionism," it said.

The statement goes on to accuse the DUP of creating "the opportunity for Sinn Fein to bring down Stormont and force a new set of negotiations on Gerry Adams' terms".

It added: "Baroness Paisley blames Arlene Foster for the crisis, Edwin Poots claims authorship of the 'agreement that never was', and meanwhile we have no input into Brexit, our hospital waiting lists are at record levels and schools at their wits' end to survive financially. It's an outrageous situation."

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein MLA Declan Kearney has called for a national civic campaign to "defend the Good Friday Agreement and demand its full implementation".

It comes after Former Secretary of State Owen Paterson was criticised for retweeting a newspaper column that said the Good Friday Agreement had "run its course".

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