Sinn Féin deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness will brief senior party colleagues today on progress in the talks with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on the devolution of policing and justice powers to the North.
As the negotiations with the DUP enter a crucial phase, it was confirmed last night that Mr McGuinness would now update members of the Sinn Féin officer board.
The Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams yesterday afternoon indicated a deal had yet to be agreed, but last night the two parties held a further session of negotiations at Stormont.
Mr Adams said his party wanted to see “product” emerge from the discussions, indicating a preference for firm decisions to be pinned down on outstanding issues.
The continued negotiations followed confirmation that the Conservative Party held secret discussions with the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the DUP.
The Conservatives are already involved in an electoral pact with the UUP, but news of the weekend talks fuelled speculation of a wider political deal involving both unionist parties.
While a UUP/DUP election pact could maximise unionist strength in the North and secure 10 or more MPs likely to support David Cameron after the general election, nationalists warned the Conservatives against disrupting the peace process.
SDLP leader Mark Durkan said: “I think, at a time when everybody should be concentrating on the big issue that is in front of us, it’s unhelpful for the Opposition party in Westminster, who are presenting themselves as the government-in-waiting, to distract parties in this way.”
The Conservatives have previously rejected DUP calls for agreed unionist candidates in selected seats in the North, characterising it as a return to old-style sectarian politics aimed at freezing out nationalists.
But Mr Durkan asked whether the fear of a hung Parliament had tempted the Conservatives to drift away from their pledge to launch a new political force in the North which would offer both Catholic and Protestant voters the chance to take part in UK politics.
“When they first announced their great wheeze of coming into Northern Ireland politics, they said they would not be getting involved in the old communal politics,” said the Foyle MP.
Repeating his party’s previous scepticism about Tory plans, he added: “Was that ever true?”
The Conservatives, however, said their shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Owen Paterson, had merely “facilitated” talks between the two unionist parties.
A spokesman said: “Mr Paterson held private talks with a number of senior unionist politicians in England over the weekend, the purpose of which was to help promote greater political stability.”
But sources in the North claimed the discussions were of wider significance and that, while they were at an early stage, they could yet maximise unionist political strength, plus secure UUP and DUP support for David Cameron in a hung Parliament.
Ulster Unionist deputy leader Danny Kennedy yesterday made a short statement inside Stormont’s Parliament Buildings confirming that the talks had taken place.
“We thought we’d take the opportunity to confirm our attendance over the weekend at, not secret talks, but political discussions carried out with other pro-union parties in England,” said the Newry and Armagh Assembly member.
“We welcome those and think that the pro-union people generally will welcome those discussions.”
Mr Paterson will be at Stormont today to meet the DUP’s Acting First Minister Arlene Foster.