Arlene Foster seeks return to direct rule if deadlock is not broken

Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill accuses DUP of blocking progressive politics

DUP leader Arlene Foster said London should move to appoint direct-rule ministers in Northern Ireland if a final attempt at brokering a deal to restore devolution failed. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

DUP leader Arlene Foster has called on Sinn Féin to re-enter talks, with a short time frame set, and the "one shared precondition" of restoring devolution.

And as the British and Irish governments consider whether to move the talks away from Stormont, Ms Foster said negotiations should take place in Northern Ireland "rather than in some fancy English stately home".

Early this month, London and Dublin are expected to make a new push to try to persuade the DUP and Sinn Féin to break the political deadlock. For almost a year since the resignation of the late deputy first minister Martin McGuinness Northern Ireland has been without a functioning power-sharing administration.

The two governments are understood to be weighing up whether there would be any advantage to moving the talks out of Belfast, with reports that they could be held at the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, Co Down, or at Rockliffe Hall, a luxury golf and spa resort near Darlington in England.


Short time frame

“Let us re-enter talks with one shared precondition, 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,” said Ms Foster on Monday.

The DUP leader said, however, that in the absence of agreement with Sinn Féin, the British government should introduce direct rule from Westminster. She accused Sinn Féin of prioritising issues such as a stand-alone Irish language act “over jobs, schools and hospitals”.

“What’s hurting hard-working people is the absence of a government, not the absence of language legislation,” she said in a new-year statement.

Ms Foster said recent rounds of talks had been “bedevilled by the setting of preconditions” by Sinn Féin.

“The people of Northern Ireland deserve a government and if Sinn Féin persist with their intransigence then the secretary of state should move to appoint direct-rule ministers early in the new year,” she said.

Language rights

In her new-year statement, Sinn Féin’s Northern leader Michelle O’Neill said people would “not accept the denial of language rights, of marriage equality and the right to coroners’ inquests because the DUP dictate it.

“I see civic society standing up to be counted and demanding their rights and entitlements are protected and enshrined on the same basis as they are elsewhere on these islands,” she said.

Ms O’Neill said she wanted to “lead Sinn Féin back into a new Executive because locally-elected ministers are best placed to run local public services and fight back against the threats of Brexit and austerity.

“I believe that can happen early in the new year but only if the institutions represent genuine and equal partnership government for all our people,” she said.

Ms O’Neill said if the DUP continued to “set its face against the people and against progressive politics” then there was an onus on the Dublin and London governments “to spell out how they intend to ensure the implementation of previous agreements and pave a pathway to restore the institutions on the basis of equal partnership and respect in the terms set out almost 20 years ago” in the Belfast Agreement.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood warned against people accepting direct rule as an alternative to continuous deadlock. "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," he said.

“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,” added Mr Eastwood.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times