DUP Leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill have clashed over the issue of Northern Ireland’s identity and its future role in Europe.
Mrs O’Neill said “the North isn’t British” when asked at the Conservative Party conference if an Irish language act would make it less British.
But she told Reuters a power-sharing agreement could be reached in weeks.
Mrs Foster told the same audience she did not want to turn the event into a row, “but Northern Ireland is British”.
Speaking at the Ulster Fry breakfast event at the conference, the two leaders also disagreed on the role Northern Ireland should have after the UK leaves the EU.
Mrs O’Neill said there should be special EU status for Northern Ireland, but Mrs Foster dismissed the idea, saying Northern Ireland would leave “the customs union and the single market”.
She said Northern Ireland would leave the EU in line with the rest of the UK.
Both leaders said a deal to restore devolution at Stormont was possible, but highlighted the stumbling blocks involved.
Arlene Foster said in recent days discussions had intensified and “solid progress” had been made, but told the audience in Manchester Town Hall that “differences remain”.
She repeated that the Irish language “was not a threat to the union”, but stressed that there could not be a “one-sided deal”.
The DUP leader added that in any deal, “no one culture has dominance”.
For her part, Mrs O’Neill said Sinn Fein will not be “shoe-horned” into a power-sharing deal cobbled together by the Government to appease to the DUP.
Speaking at her maiden Conservative Party conference, she said the DUP deal to prop up the Conservatives posed “real challenges”.
“A political breakthrough is entirely possible, but only we can together grasp the opportunity to guarantee the right of every citizen to their democratic social, economic, civil and political rights.”
She added that this included:
- An Irish language act
- The right to access coroners’ inquests
- Equal marriage
- A bill of rights
- A commitment to tackle sectarianism
She also called for Northern Ireland to be granted a special status within the EU.
‘Coming down the track’
The event was also attended by Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire, who warned that if a deal were not struck soon he would legislate for a budget at Westminster.
That was “coming down the track quite rapidly”, he added.
UUP leader Robin Swann said he found the event “depressing”.
“What I heard this morning was not exactly hopeful or positive,” he told BBC News NI.
Mr Swann said he thought the mood music in Belfast was positive, and he thought the Manchester event had “taken us back nearly six months”.
Mrs Foster met the prime minister after the breakfast event, and her party is to host a conference event this evening, for the second consecutive year.
Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive collapsed in January, and progress in the ongoing talks will be among the topics discussed.
It is the first Conservative conference since the DUP and the Conservatives agreed their confidence-and-supply deal at Westminster.
Mrs Foster said that June’s election was an historic one for the DUP, which had given the party significant opportunities, but that “London will not be a distraction” from what the party needed to do in Belfast.
“It is not a choice for the DUP between influence in London and executive power in Belfast,” she said.
“What will deliver the most for Northern Ireland is both operating in tandem and that has been, is and will be, our goal until it is realised.”