Northern Ireland news

'No vacancy' for DUP leader says Christopher Stalford

DUP leader Arlene Foster
Brendan Hughes

ARLENE Foster will continue as DUP leader as there is "no vacancy", a party MLA has insisted amid speculation of a future leadership challenge.

Christopher Stalford said that other parties' dislike of Mrs Foster "just proves that she is doing her job right".

The continuing Stormont impasse, scrutiny of Mrs Foster at the RHI inquiry and the DUP's influence at Westminster have contributed to suggestions that her party leadership is under pressure.

But speaking on BBC's The View programme, DUP South Belfast MLA Mr Stalford said: "Arlene Foster will lead the DUP, and will continue to lead the DUP.

"And she has the full support of me, my colleagues in Stormont and I am convinced a huge majority of people out in the unionist community want Arlene to continue to lead the DUP."

He added: "The DUP has a leader, there is no vacancy, and she will continue to lead the party and continue to lead the unionist community.

"And the fact that there are people in other parties who don't like Arlene just proves that she is doing her job right."

Mrs Foster has been DUP leader since December 2015 and became first minister the following January.

But the DUP and Sinn Féin-led Stormont executive collapsed in January last year after the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister, citing the DUP's handling of the RHI controversy.

Mrs Foster was the minister in charge when the flawed Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was set up in 2012.

She has faced questioning as part of a public inquiry set up to examine what went wrong and how the green energy initiative ran hugely over budget.

A final report from the inquiry is not expected until spring next year.

Sinn Féin has previously insisted it would not accept Mrs Foster returning as first minister while the RHI inquiry is ongoing.

But on Thursday a Sinn Féin MLA said the party would now "not object" if the DUP nominated her for the role following any deal to restore devolution.

John O'Dowd told The View his party's stance on Mrs Foster's role has changed over time.

"Two years after Arlene Foster was effectively sacked as first minister by Martin McGuinness, who the DUP choose as their leader – if and when we get to a position where we have an executive and a rights-based society – then if Arlene Foster is nominated as the joint first minister by the DUP, it's not up to Sinn Féin to object at that stage," he said.

His comments echo the remarks of Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, who in June told the News Letter that "politics has moved on".

The DUP's Mr Stalford told Mr Dowd it was "arrogant" to suggest Sinn Féin had sacked Mrs Foster.

Mr O'Dowd said Mrs Foster's position "was never the major sticking block".

"The sticking block is language rights, same-sex marriage rights, a rights-based society and a true commitment to power-sharing," he said.

But Mr Stalford said rights were not the same as a Sinn Féin "wish list", and challenged Mr O'Dowd to seek change through the assembly.

"If you've got the numbers, why don't you rock up to Stormont and vote them through?" the DUP MLA asked.

Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley held a meeting on Thursday with the five main parties at Stormont, where it was suggested a fresh talks process to restore devolution may not begin until the new year.

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