The DUP leader Peter Robinson has revealed that he has shaken hands with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness and suggested that he could be reinstated as First Minister within two weeks.
Mr Robinson stepped aside as First Minister a week ago in an attempt to clear his name over an allegation surrounding his wife Iris’s financial conduct.
Despite his party colleague Arlene Foster taking up the duties of the first minister for up to six weeks, the DUP leader has played down the move.
He is facing a series or official probes after over his wife’s failure to declare 50,000 pounds she obtained from two wealthy developers to set her teenage lover up in business.
The time-scale of the investigations, which include inquiries by Westminster, Castlereagh Borough Council and the assembly, is not known.
“I’ve handed over some duties to Arlene Foster, my colleague, for up to six weeks but maybe it will be only two. l’ll see,” Mr Robinson said.
“People are asking what effect this will have on the political process but I will continue to lead the negotiations with Martin McGuinness on the devolution of policing and justice.”
Mr Robinson has also revealed that his recent problems led to a political first for a DUP leader - a handshake with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness.
The scandalised politician revealed yesterday that the Sinn Fein deputy first minister offered his hand to commiserate with him over his personal troubles - and he shook it.
“He expressed sympathy to me and put out his hand,” Mr Robinson said of the exchange.
I thought it would be wrong for me, in those circumstances, to do anything other than that.”
The pair shook hands during a private meeting at Stormont. Even when McGuinness and Ian Paisley were known as the ‘Chuckle Brothers’, Robinson’s predecessor refused this symbolic gesture.
“[McGuinness] very kindly sent me text messages, then voice mail messages and spoke to me privately about the issues,” said Robinson.
News of the handshake came as the talks remained deadlocked in intensive negotiations aimed at securing a breakthrough in the long running row over devolving policing and justice powers from London to Belfast.
However, the scandals surrounding both the DUP and Sinn Fein appears to have drawn the two parties closer together.
The deeply symbolic moment between the DUP leader and the former IRA commander would have been unthinkable in the distant and even recent past.
The relationship between the two leaders has appeared cooler end less personal than the bonhomie that characterised Mr McGuinness’s political partnership with former DUP leader lan Paisley.
TALKS GO ON
At the weekend, Mr Robinson said he was “more convinced than ever” that agreement could be found in a short period of time.
~We are starting to make progress in the discussions,” he said. “l hope that [Sinn Fein] recognise that we genuinely want to get there.”
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams expressed hope that an agreement was “workable”.
He said he did not expect an imminent breakthrough and that the talks remained a “work in progress”.
“It is my view that it can be made to work within the context of the Good Friday and St Andrews agreements,” he said.
“People will also make their judgment of all of this when we have product or when we don’t have product.
“At the moment I’m not anxious because we are very much in a work-in progress mode.”
There is a sense that the next few days could well be the last chance to get the deal done in the short term.
Though the key remains achieving a timetable to switch responsibilities for police, courts and prisons from Westminster to Stormont, other issues are understood to have widened the discussions.
There are indications that apart from dealing with parades and the retention of the full-time reserve, the deadlock over local government -- which could prevent the planned amalgamation of the present 26 local authorities into 11 -- is also under discussion.
However, at the end of talks today there was increased speculation that the DUP could again return to a stalling position.
There is still a focus on the party’s hardliners including MPs Gregory Campbell, David Simpson and William McCrea, with party deputy leader Nigel Dodds seen as a key deal maker or deal breaker.
Mr Campbell said this evening that, after another day of exchanges at Stormont Castle, a timescale was less important than securing unionist confidence in the move.
“It doesn’t matter what the time is, it doesn’t matter if it’s tomorrow or in a decade - the important thing is to get the conditions,” he said.
On Saturday, DUP officials complained that they did not yet have the “substance” of Sinn Fein’s position on sectarian parades. The DUP is understood to be keen to secure Sinn Fein support for a hugely contentious Drumcree march by the Orange Order down the nationalist Garvaghy Road in Portadown. In the late nineties, the parades issue and a standoff over the Drucmree march, led to widespread conflict and civil strife across the Six Counties.
Sinn Fein has twice postponed a meeting of its leadership, the ard chomhairle, and impatience is growing for solid evidence of movement. A continuing stalemate could force an early Assembly election.
Party negotiators are due to resume talks in the morning.