Vicki Hawthorne: NI Secretary believes short deadline enough to finalise deal on power sharing

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in the final, final stages of a deal with the government.

It looks like Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is attempting to ‘finalise’ the ‘final, final stages’ of a deal with the Government.

The DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told a small gathering of journalists in the DUP’s east Belfast headquarters yesterday that he would meet again with the Government ‘early this week’.

Away from the camera, when asked who his meeting would be with, Sir Jeffrey would only say it would be at ‘the highest level’.

On camera, the DUP leader confirmed ‘to date no agreement has been reached in our negotiations with the Government ’ and ‘there remains a number of important issues that have to be finalised if we are to see a restored Assembly and Executive’.

After six months of talking about making ‘progress’ he has shifted to talking about ‘finalising’ details.

Of course it was the Northern Ireland Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris who said last November the discussions between the DUP and the Government were in their ‘final, final stages.’

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson also said a meeting of the DUP’s party officers last Friday was not a ‘make or break meeting’ about a deal with the Government and a possible return to Stormont.

The DUP leader did not ask the 12 party officers to vote on any deal last week. It’s known that several are strongly opposed to what’s currently on the table. If he was to put it to a vote and there wasn’t enough support, where would that leave Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s leadership?

He denied the DUP is ‘negotiating with itself’ and hit out that so-called DUP sources who leaked the details of last week’s meeting to the BBC Nolan Show were ‘ill-informed’.

He also warned the media should be careful about who they listen to.

Sir Jeffrey was asked during yesterday’s small press conference if the person or people who had briefed the media last week were trying to damage his leadership.

He responded: “They will have to explain if they are prepared to step out from behind their anonymity what their real motive is… none of this spooks me, phases me…”

Yesterday’s press conference was arguably an attempt to try to regain control of the situation, part of a damage limitation process for the DUP. While Sir Jeffrey was speaking in east Belfast, a short distance away in Parliament Buildings, visiting school children were the only signs of life about the place.

There were no DUP MLAs spotted wandering about, as would normally be the case on a Monday.

Some of the other parties were carrying on with their own internal meetings and business.

Those that were there were clearly fed up.

The MLAs I spoke to believe Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP must make a final decision by the end of this week, next week at the very, very latest.

And now the Government is preparing to extend the deadline for the restoration of Stormont until the 8 February. The legislation will come before Parliament on Wednesday and the move creates yet again a very short window to get a deal over the line.

It is understood the Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris believes the shifting of the deadline will give sufficient time to finalise the remaining issues with the DUP.

It piles yet more pressure on the DUP leader who has insisted he and his party will not be calendar led.

The second anniversary of the collapse of Stormont (this time round) is approaching (3 February). The Government obviously remains hopeful that it can be restored before, or very shortly after the two year mark. If it is not, there is a firm belief by many inside Stormont and some onlookers the final curtain will fall on Northern Ireland’s institutions.

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