Northern Ireland news

Sinn Féin adamant Arlene Foster cannot be First Minister

DUP leader Arlene Foster and her deputy leader Nigel Dodds arrive at 10 Downing Street for talks with Theresa May. Picture by Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
David Young, Press Association

Sinn Fein is not budging on its insistence that Arlene Foster cannot return as Stormont first minister while a public inquiry into a botched green energy scheme is ongoing, Gerry Kelly has made clear.

The republican party's stance on the DUP leader is one of a number of issues of dispute standing in the way of restoring devolution at Stormont.

The public inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) affair - an ill-fated environmental initiative that left Stormont facing a potential £490 million overspend - will not start until the autumn and could run well into 2018, or further.

Mrs Foster, who was Stormont economy minister when the RHI was developed, has expressed regret over the scheme's flaws but has insisted she acted in good faith throughout.

The DUP has rejected Sinn Fein's red line, telling republicans they will not dictate who leads unionism and questioning the logic of taking action against Mrs Foster before a public inquiry has delivered its findings.

Asked whether Sinn Fein stands by its stance, Mr Kelly answered in blunt and emphatic terms: "Yes."

Further questioned if there is room for compromise on the issue during negotiations to re-establish powersharing, the north Belfast MLA reiterated that his party position has not changed.

Parties have until June 29 to re-establish a coalition executive or they face the prospect of direct rule being reimposed from Westminster.

Northern Ireland has been without a powersharing Executive since March and without a first and deputy first minister since January, when the late Martin McGuinness's resignation forced Mrs Foster from her job as first minister.

The institutions collapsed amid the bitter row over the RHI controversy.

The talks to restore the institutions take place as negotiations continue in London between Prime Minister Theresa May and the DUP to strike a parliamentary deal to support her minority Government.

The anticipated arrangement has forced the UK Government to reject suggestions its commitment to act with impartiality in Northern Ireland - as set out in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement - will be fatally undermined by any pact with the DUP.

Mr Kelly rejected the DUP claim that the two processes were separate.

"It is very relevant whatever is going on there, though I understand the DUP seem to think it is something entirely different," he said.

"Whatever happens there could have - we don't know if it will because we haven't seen any of what's going on - could have an impact on what's happening.

"Of course what happens in Britain with the Tory Government, and the DUP are hitching their wagon to the Tory Government, will have an impact on what's happening here."

He added: “So we are going to need more than reassurances that any deal between Arlene Foster and Theresa May won’t undermine this process. 

“We need to see the detail because it is the Tories who undermined the Executive in the first place by pandering to the DUP’s actions in government and slashing over £1 billion from the Block Grant. 

“And it is the Tories who may inflict yet more cuts on the North through their austerity policies, regardless of any deal with the DUP.” 

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said the restoration of powersharing was being risked over the issue of who will be first minister.

"We are getting concerned now that no matter what happens around these talks that we are going to come back to that same sticking point, Sinn Fein's insistence on who the first minister is going to be or not going to be," he said.

"I am beginning to wonder 'are they genuine?' Is Sinn Fein actually genuine in their engagements that are going on in these talks at all levels?"

Mr Swann said problems in the health and education sectors highlighted the need to get devolution back as soon as possible.

"There are lines of respect and dignity," he said.

"If Sinn Fein is serious about respect they have to look to the respect of those people who are now on trolleys and on waiting lists, they need to look to the dignity of those headmasters who are coming back in September to school budgets that they don't know are in place."

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