Northern Ireland news

Arlene Foster: 10 days of power-sharing talks 'at most'

DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin's northern leader Michelle O'Neill at a Tory party conference fringe event in Manchester. Picture by Owen Humphreys, Press Association

ARLENE Foster has warned there are only 10 days of power-sharing talks left "at most" as she clashed with Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill over a claim that the north "isn't British".

Speaking at a Conservative Party conference fringe event yesterday, along with the DUP leader, Ms O'Neill referred to Northern Ireland's identity.

"The north isn't British," she said.

However, Mrs Foster responded: "I don't want this to turn into a row but Northern Ireland is British".

She later told the BBC Ms O'Neill's claim was "ridiculous" and accused her of making a speech that was "quite aggressive" in tone.

She added that discussions aimed at restoring power-sharing were "coming to the end game" and estimated they would continue for "a week to 10 days at the most".

During yesterday's event, organised by peace charity Champ, Ms O'Neill insisted Sinn Féin will not be forced into a deal cobbled together by the British government to appease the DUP.

The rare joint appearance saw the two women share a table for breakfast before sitting side by side on a stage in Manchester's Town Hall.

But the leaders showed no sign of reaching a breakthrough despite both insisting talks had intensified.

Ms O'Neill said: "The British Government should not think that they can cobble together a deal acceptable to the DUP and then shoe-horn Sinn Féin into acquiescing to it.

"That will not happen. The shape of a deal is very clear. The two Governments know this. So do the DUP and the other parties."

Mrs Foster warned that "decision time is soon upon us" as the prospect of a return to direct rule from Westminster loomed large.

The British Government is warning that it will have to step in to pass a budget for the north at the end of October.

Ms O'Neill insisted an agreement must be reached on an Irish language act but Mrs Foster said any deal must be acceptable to unionists and nationalists.

Asked if she had been too high-handed with Republicans while in office, the DUP leader replied: "Anybody who looks back at their life and doesn't say 'Oh, I should have done that in a different way' would be telling you a lie".

"I don't think I was high-handed but, of course, it's for others to decide if I was or not," he said.

Mrs Foster said "solid progress" had been made but "differences do remain".

"While our electoral strength in the House of Commons is now widely recognised, I have always made it clear that our important role in London will not be a distraction from what we need to do in Belfast," she said.

"It is not a choice for the DUP between influence in London and executive power in Belfast. What is in the best interests of Northern Ireland is operating in tandem and this remains our goal."

Pressed on whether the DUP leader must stand aside in order for a deal to be reached, Ms O'Neill said until all outstanding issues had been dealt with, they "will never get to position of Arlene standing aside".

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