With only weeks left until a British-imposed deadline for a deal on power-sharing talks, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill and the DUP leader Arlene Foster have clashed in an unusual public event.
They were both speaking at a Conservative Party conference fringe event this week when the discussion moved to the key issue of a proposed Irish language act.
Asked if Sinn Fein wanted Irish language legislation to make the north “look less British”, Mrs O’Neill pointed out: “The north isn’t British.”
The DUP leader Foster immediately challenged her. “I don’t want this to turn into a row,” she said, “but Northern Ireland is British”.
The rare joint appearance saw the two women share a table for breakfast before sitting side by side on a stage in Manchester’s Town Hall.
During the event, Ms O’Neill insisted Sinn Fein will not be forced into a deal cobbled together by the British government to appease the DUP.
Ms O’Neill said: “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.”
Mrs O’Neill said that a political breakthrough “is entirely possible” but only if the right of every citizen to their democratic social, economic, civil and political rights is guaranteed.
“That includes an Irish Language Act that provides the right to use the Irish language for official purposes in interacting with the State,” she said. “The right to access coroners inquests; equal marriage; a bill of rights; and a commitment to tackle sectarianism.”
Ms O’Neill said an agreement must be reached on an Irish language act but Mrs Foster insisted any deal “must command support of unionists and nationalists alike”.
Foster later told the BBC that discussions aimed at restoring power-sharing were “coming to the end game” and estimated they would continue for “a week to 10 days at the most”.
She warned that “decision time is soon upon us”. The British government has said that it will have to step in to pass a budget for the Six Counties at the end of October.
CASH ON HOLD
It was Mrs Foster’s first public address to the Tories since the signing of the controversial confidence and supply arrangements between the DUP and Tories in June.
The DUP has blamed Sinn Fein for delaying the 1 billion pound payoff for propping up a minority Conservative government in London. It is now over three months since an agreement was signed that vowed to release funds for a range of public spending marked out by the DUP.
Initially, it was claimed the cash was not conditional on the restoration of an executive, but in recent weeks it has become clear that the funds will not be released until the talks aimed at restoring power-sharing have concluded -- with or without agreement.
In a statement, Ms O’Neill accused the DUP of “handing the Tories a blank cheque” to continue with “cuts and austerity”. She said her party “want a sustainable executive”, but that the DUP’s actions would “make that task all the more difficult”.
DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson has said he expected British Direct Ruler James Brokenshire to bring forward a full direct-rule budget later this month, if the local administration has not been restored.
“This will include the first tranche of this money in the absence of the executive,” he said. “Our expectation is that that will happen and happen soon.”
SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon claimed the billion-pound deal had been exposed as a “farcical game of power play”.
“The DUP thought they had one up on Sinn Fein when this deal was announced, while the Tories, by controlling the release of any money, have one up on both the DUP and Sinn Fein.
“While they all play games, not a single penny has found its way into our public services which have existed on the verge of crisis since well before the deal was struck.”