Arlene Foster calls for a return to direct rule if powersharing efforts fail again
The British Government should move promptly to appoint direct rule ministers in Northern Ireland if a short final attempt at brokering a deal to restore devolution fails, Arlene Foster has said.
The DUP leader said a short time frame should be set for renewed negotiations between her party and Sinn Fein.
In her New Year message, Mrs Foster also rejected suggestions that the talks venue should be shifted outside of Northern Ireland to a hothouse format in England.
The former Stormont first minister said the continued absence of a government in the region was "unacceptable and simply unsustainable".
Blaming Sinn Féin for the failure to re-establish a devolved executive, she also accused her erstwhile partners-in-government of refusing to engage in renewed talks.
"Recent rounds of talks have been bedevilled by the setting of pre-conditions by Sinn Féin," Mrs Foster claimed.
"Let us re-enter talks with one shared pre-condition - that we will redouble our efforts to restore devolution and start taking the decisions that the people of Northern Ireland so desperately need.
"Let's set ourselves a short time frame. And let's do it here at home rather than in some fancy English stately home."
It is almost a year since Northern Ireland had a properly function administration. The powersharing institutions collapsed last January amid a row over a botched green energy scheme.
The rift between the DUP and Sinn Féin widened in the subsequent months as a range of other unresolved issues emerged as key obstacles preventing a return to devolved rule.
A stand-off over proposed legislative protections for Irish language speakers is currently one of the main sticking points.
Mrs Foster said: "I still believe that the best way to deal with the issues facing our society is for Stormont to be back up and running with locally elected and accountable politicians taking decisions on the issues that matter to people across our province.
"A return to direct rule would be an inferior alternative, but it would be a government.
"But the people of Northern Ireland deserve a government and if Sinn Féin persist with their intransigence then the Secretary of State (James Brokenshire) should move to appoint direct rule ministers early in the New Year."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood insisted direct rule was not inevitable.
He accused Sinn Féin and the DUP of overseeing 10 years of failed governance.
"Their incompetence and inability to govern has left us with the worst level of economic growth on these islands, a business community left to fend for itself with the challenges of Brexit, static wages for working families and our hospitals and school system either breaking or broken," he said.
"Under their failed leadership, the north's voice is not only an afterthought in terms of Brexit but our economy and public services have been an afterthought during one year of talking between the DUP and Sinn Fein.
"People deserve to know; their focus is elsewhere and not on the people who actually elected them.
"Some wish for any kind of change away from that decade of failure. However, I would urge people to reflect that though they may not have fallen in love with devolution, all of us will inevitably come to loathe Tory/DUP direct rule.
"This new year is an opportunity to break free from that failure.
"British direct rule can't, like Brexit, be enforced upon us. Instead of being led into the easy comfort of our own silos, let all of us in political life finally reach for solutions.
"Whether from a nationalist or unionist tradition, each and every one of us belongs to this small corner of Ireland. Our only choice is to live with each other and work together.
"This year has moved us no closer to the only future worth knowing - a future where we truly share power and finally deliver good government for all our people.
"If much of 2017 was spent forgetting that solution then let us all work to remember it and deliver it in 2018."