Political news

Arlene Foster: Devolution talks should be short and at home - with failure triggering direct rule

DUP leader Arlene Foster, with colleagues Nigel Dodds and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson outside 10 Downing Street in London after the party agreed a deal to support the minority Conservative government. Picture by Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

DUP leader Arlene Foster has called for a "short" Belfast-based round of devolution talks - with failure triggering a return to direct rule to end Northern Ireland's "unacceptable and simply unsustainable" year without government.

"Every day, we are seeing the impact of having no government," she said.

"No budget; no progress on the recommendations contained in the Bengoa report (on health and social care reforms); and no advancement of essential reforms in education - this cannot continue."

Mrs Foster insisted that the DUP, which is propping up the Conservative government at Westminster, "remain ready to return to government immediately without the need for any pre-conditions to be met".

She accused her former Executive partners, Sinn Féin, of "refusing to even engage in talks" and prioritising a "long list of red lines... over jobs, schools and hospitals".

"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."

Mrs Foster added that a return to direct rule "would be an inferior alternative but it would be a government".

"The people of Northern Ireland deserve a government and if Sinn Féin persist with their intransigence then the Secretary of State should move to appointdDirect rule ministers early in the new year."

The former first minister's apparent move to set a deadline for a resolution comes almost a year after the power-sharing institutions collapsed amid a row over the DUP's handling of the RHI green energy scheme.

The rift between the north's two biggest parties became increasingly bitter over the following months as Mrs Foster rejected calls for a standalone Irish language act and Sinn Féin also insisted on progress on other rights issues.

Mrs Foster's statement yesterday came as Sinn Féin northern leader Michelle O'Neill said her party is "determined and optimistic... that we will restore power-sharing institutions based on the principles of the Good Friday agreement".

In a platform piece for The Irish News, Ms O'Neill said she wants to lead Sinn Féin back into a new executive and it can "happen early in the new year, but only if the institutions represent genuine and equal partnership government for all our people".

"There is no alternative, the status quo is not an option."

Meanwhile, SDLP leader Colm Eastwood accused Sinn Féin and the DUP of being "set to fully and freely hand power back to the British government for the long-term".

He claimed their "incompetence and inability to govern" has left then north with the worst level of economic growth on the islands, static wages for working families and a hospital and school system "either breaking or broken".

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