The Northern Ireland Secretary has resisted calls to commit to making a formal Westminster statement on the state of powersharing talks next week.
Karen Bradley apologised to a committee of MPs on Wednesday, claiming there appeared to be a “misunderstanding” that she was going to make a definitive statement on negotiations on February 7.
Mrs Bradley said she would be responding to scheduled Northern Ireland questions on that date, but cautioned that the delicate nature of negotiations might prevent her from revealing details on progress or otherwise.
She told members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee: “What I don’t want to be is in a position of giving you a commitment that I will make statement at which I say nothing, I will make a statement when I have something to say.”
Northern Ireland has been without a functioning administration for over a year after the last DUP/Sinn Fein-led coalition imploded in a row over a botched green energy scheme.
That rift subsequently widened to take in long-running disputes over culture, social issues and legacy.
When announcing a last-ditch round of talks to save powersharing on January 18, Mrs Bradley had said she would update the House of Commons on February 7.
Some interpreted that as a key date in what had been billed as a short, intensive negotiation process. Sinn Fein said it believed the initiative would last two weeks.
During her committee appearance, she faced pressure from a number of MPs, including independent Lady Sylvia Hermon, Labour’s Kate Hoey and the DUP’s Jim Shannon to make a formal statement in the House of Commons on February 7.
It was noted that parliamentary recess falls the following week.
Committee chair Andrew Murrison predicted that members could request Mrs Bradley’s appearance via an urgent parliamentary question, but he said it would be preferable if she voluntarily offered to make a statement rather than be “dragged to the House”.
Mrs Bradley said powersharing talks remained in a “preparatory stage” with full round table exchanges between the five main Stormont parties and the UK and Irish governments scheduled to begin next Monday “at the latest”.
“I’m sorry if there has been misunderstanding about the significance of the 7th of February, it is the date for oral questions,” she told committee members.
The Conservative MP did not definitively rule out making a formal Commons statement next week.
“Whether it will be the right point to make a full statement on the progress of the talks, I really do need to see where we are on the talks at that point,” she said.
David Sterling, the senior civil servant currently running Stormont in the absence of devolved ministers, last week told the committee that he required certainty on a budget for the forthcoming financial year by February 8.
Mrs Bradley declined to confirm if the Government would act to legislate for a budget on that date if efforts to restore powersharing had not succeeded at that point.
But she added: “Depending on the outcome of talks there will be different things that will be needed to be done in Westminster and I would hope that next week I can provide an update as to what those things are.”