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Arlene Foster hits out at Leo Varadkar

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he would not accept straight direct rule from Westminster. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire

ARLENE Foster has hit out at Leo Varadkar after his call for Dublin to have "real and meaningful involvement" in the north if power-sharing talks fail.

As speculation mounts that a fresh bid for a deal to restore devolution will begin in January, Mr Varadkar said he would not support a return to straight direct rule from Westminster if time is called on another round of negotiations.

The Fine Gael leader insisted that there would be only two options – either to call another assembly election or convene the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.

However, the DUP leader yesterday criticised the taoiseach and Tánaiste Simon Coveney and compared them unfavourably with their predecessors.

"I reflect often this past few weeks on the relationship which (ex-taoiseach) Enda Kenny and (former foreign affairs minister) Charlie Flanagan had with the DUP and indeed with all of the parties in Northern Ireland and the fact that they worked very hard in building that relationship," she said.

"It saddens me greatly I have to say that the current taoiseach and the current tánaiste have damaged those relations and (it) will take some time to build those relations up. Frankly we don't have that time because what we want to see happening is devolution back in Northern Ireland."

Mrs Foster told UTV: "I think all of this ratcheting up in relation to what the Belfast Agreement means from the Republic of Ireland's point of view I think is quite damaging to the talks process."

DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson also accused Mr Varadkar of "deliberately stoking up tensions".

"I think there is a pattern emerging here – the Irish government seems intent on goading unionists, not only on Brexit, but they also sabre rattling around the internal affairs of Northern Ireland," he said.

Sir Jeffrey claimed Dublin having a say in the north's internal affairs would "breach all previous agreements".

"The taoiseach does not have a veto on direct rule," he said.

"Recently Simon Coveney said we needed to build bridges but meanwhile the taoiseach is burning bridges."

Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann said there was no provision in the Good Friday Agreement that permits joint authority or joint stewardship.

"Articles 2 and 3 are gone and the consent principle is in place," the North Antrim MLA said.

"Rather than try to pressurise the UK government or unionists as to what should happen in the event that talks to restore Stormont are unsuccessful, Mr Varadkar should focus his efforts on Sinn Féin, who are the real stumbling block to progress."

TUV leader Jim Allister also described the taoiseach's remarks as "aggressive".

However, Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy accused the DUP of "faux outrage" at the taoiseach's comments, claiming they were "simply in line with the Good Friday Agreement".

“Under the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement an intergovernmental conference involving the Irish and British governments should be called in the absence of political institutions," the Newry and Armagh MLA said.

"The onus remains on the two governments, but especially the British government, which has responsibility for equality in this jurisdiction – a responsibility for underpinning in law the rights of citizens in the north of Ireland which are enjoyed by citizens throughout these islands, to pave a pathway to restore the institutions."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the Fine Gael leader's comments were "encouraging".

"Let's be very clear about this – if it's not devolution it's direct rule in the absence of joint stewardship," the Foyle MLA said.

"Maintaining balance between the British and Irish traditions in Northern Ireland is what underpins all of our political agreements. In the absence of local institutions, the only way to achieve that balance means a structure in which both the Irish and British governments hold joint authority over major political decisions in Northern Ireland."

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