Theresa May’s visit to Northern Ireland has been described as “a bit of a distraction” from negotiations to restore the power-sharing agreement by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster.
The Prime Minister’s trip to Belfast – alongside the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, who had cancelled prior engagements – was widely interpreted as a sign of an imminent agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein.
But Ms Foster, who leads the party in charge of propping up Ms May’s fragile government in Westminster, said that while the Prime Minister and Mr Varadkar were “very welcome”, she added: “The visit yesterday became a bit of a distraction because we had still work to do and we’ll continue to do that work today and in the coming days.”
The DUP leader told Sky News that the leaders had been told in advance of their trip that the “deal wasn’t done”.
Asked why the Prime Minister had travelled to Northern Ireland, she added: “A very good question and perhaps one you should ask of her.”
The comments will likely come as an embarrassment to Downing Street after Ms May urged “one final push” as she spoke to reporters outside the Stormont estate.
Hoping to end the 13-month political stalemate after the power-sharing agreement collapsed last year, Ms May said that while “differences remain” between the political leaders, she added: “I think there is a basis of an agreement here.”
The Prime Minister continued: “It’s been 13 long months since we last saw devolved government here, and I think we are now at the point where it’s time for the local elected representatives to find a way to work together and to deal with, to tackle, the many pressing issues facing Northern Ireland.
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Speaking before Ms May, the Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar – who had cancelled previous engagements with the Welsh First Minister to travel to Belfast – also said “we have to be patient”, but added he was hopeful for an “accommodation” between the political parties in Northern Ireland.
The DUP did not meet Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on Monday but Mrs Foster rejected the suggestion that recent frayed relations between the two over Brexit was the reason. She said she did not feel it necessary to meet Mr Vardakar because the negotiations were touching on matters solely related to internal matters within Northern Ireland.
Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Fein leader, said on Monday that she believed “we are close to an agreement”, but said the two parties “are not exactly there just yet”.
“There is nothing insurmountable if there is the political will to reach an agreement,” she added.