Foster urges new SF talks on Stormont impasse after election
Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill says party ‘ready to form credible, sustainable... executive’
Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, at party headquarters in east Belfast. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Ms Foster insisted the dispute, which she said centred on the “details” of proposed legislation, should not be allowed to prevent the restoration of the devolved institutions any longer.
In response to Ms Foster’s comments, Sinn Féin’s Northern leader Michelle O’Neill has said her party “stands ready to form a credible, sustainable and inclusive executive”.
The DUP leader said she has no regrets over not temporarily stepping down as first minister to avoid the collapse of powersharing with Sinn Féin at the height of the “cash-for-ash” controversy three years ago.
Sinn Féin pulled the plug on the devolved executive in January 2017 when Ms Foster refused to stand aside for six weeks to facilitate an investigation into her role in the botched green energy scheme known as the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).
The late deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned in protest at her decision – a move that precipitated the powersharing crisis, which has left Northern Ireland without a functioning government for almost three years.
In an interview with PA, Ms Foster criticised Sinn Féin’s failure to condemn the attempted murder of her father during the Troubles, and said a poll on Irish unity would reinforce Northern Ireland’s position within the union.
The Irish language stand-off remains the main obstacle in the way of a return to powersharing.
Sinn Féin has insisted it will not return to a coalition with the DUP until there is agreement to pass a stand-alone Irish Language Act.
The DUP has said it is willing to agree legislative protections for Irish speakers but only as part of wider cultural laws that would also include British and Ulster Scots traditions. Ms Foster said her approach was the “right way forward”.
“There are many people in Northern Ireland who love the Irish language, and we have no desire to put a barrier up to them accessing public services,” she said. “And therefore we believe there’s ways of doing that through legislation and, indeed, through facilitation, and we can do that – that’s not a problem.
“But why are we holding up the Assembly while we’re trying to work out the details of all of that?”
She reiterated her proposal to restore the Assembly and set up a parallel process to find a resolution to the language dispute.
Ms Foster’s party last week published a 12-point plan aimed at tackling some of the issues created by the devolution crisis.
She said “all roads lead back to devolution”, and noted that Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald had signalled a desire to return to Stormont at her recent party conference speech. “I hope that she does want to see devolution returned because I certainly do,” she said.
“But I can’t move anywhere without the co-operation of the other parties. And therefore, if we’re genuinely wanting to move Northern Ireland forward, which of course I am, let us get into those negotiations after the general election is over and let’s get devolution back again.”
Responding to Ms Foster’s comments, Michelle O’Neill added: “The current political impasse is unsustainable and unacceptable. Three years after the RHI scandal brought the Assembly down, people deserve a functioning government and genuine powersharing.
“An agreement was reached in February last year, however, the DUP regrettably walked off the pitch. That position is untenable. The delivery of rights cannot be avoided,” she said.
“If the Executive is to be credible, then it must deliver on issues such as public sector pay, safe staffing levels in the health service, economic policies that delivers prosperity for all and that invests in rural communities, and a mitigation package that protects people from Tory welfare reform.
“To be credible, all the outstanding issues must be dealt with including an Irish Language Act and reform of the Petition of Concern and we need to tackle the failure by the British government to implement the Stormont House Agreement and deal with the issue of legacy,” she said.
Separately, Ms Foster also criticised Ms McDonald for declining to criticise the attempted murder of her late father John during the Troubles.
Accusation of being selective
The DUP leader had accused Sinn Féin of being selective on what it will condemn, after it criticised loyalist banners targeting its election candidate John Finucane.
She had asked would it also condemn the IRA attempted murders of her father and of DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds.
Ms McDonald declined the opportunity to condemn the incidents last week, instead expressing “regret”.
Ms Foster responded: “Of course all right-thinking people would condemn the attempted murder of two fathers.
“I mean, I don’t think that that’s something that should have caused any great difficulty, but unfortunately Sinn Féin have taken up the usual position in relation to that.
“When someone comes to your home, to try and murder you, it needs more than regret, it should be condemned outright.”
In 2013, Ms Foster suggested a unity poll would help to validate Northern Ireland’s position in the United Kingdom.
Asked if that remained her view in the context of the renewed focus on unification as a result of Brexit, she said: “I have to say I think it would reinforce our position within the union because clearly we would win that unity poll.
“I think the unfortunate thing is under the Belfast Agreement, there is the capacity to call that unity poll every seven years then after that, and I think that would be hugely destabilising. Because you’re just working in seven-year cycles then to the next unity poll and the next unity poll.”
Asked if she regretted her stance on the cash-for-ash crisis, given the three years of stasis which followed, she told PA: “No I don’t, because I mean you could fill your life full of regrets about x, y and z.
“But I think when you look back at what happened at that time, it was the right decision.”
Reflecting on her four years at the helm of the DUP, Ms Foster acknowledged it had been a “rollercoaster”.
The RHI had been designed to encourage businesses and farmers to switch to eco-friendly wood pellet boilers by offering a subsidy to buy the sustainable fuel.
Errors in its design meant applicants were paid more than it actually cost them to buy pellets, creating a “burn to earn” incentive which left Stormont facing a multi-million pound overspend bill.
Ms Foster was the minister in charge of the scheme during its inception and implementation.
The findings of a public inquiry, chaired by retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin, are anticipated to be published in the coming months.
“We have had the public inquiry now in relation to the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, we will get the public inquiry results soon,” said Ms Foster.
“I think there’ll be a lot in there from which we will have to learn and adapt in the future.
“And I think we should take the public inquiry report and very much look at what it recommends and then move forward from there.”
Dealing with British Labour
The DUP could potentially do business with the Labour Party in a hung parliament after the election if Jeremy Corbyn was not leader, Ms Foster also indicated.
Ms Foster reiterated her view that she could see no circumstance in which her party would support a minority Labour administration with Mr Corbyn as prime minister.
But she acknowledged there were others in the Labour Party, with different positions to Mr Corbyn, who she could consider working with.
In that situation, she said her party would judge any successor to Mr Corbyn against the DUP’s election blueprint for Northern Ireland and whether the new leader’s vision was good for the region.
“Jeremy Corbyn, of course is an anathema to anyone who believes in the United Kingdom,” said the DUP leader.
“I mean he would destroy the economy. We’ve seen that through his manifesto launch. I mean, some of it is complete fantastical stuff. How he’s going to fund that no one knows, he would wreck the economy.
“He would wreck the defence of our nation as well. And more than that it would lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom.
“So therefore, we cannot see any circumstances, I see no circumstance where we would support a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party.”
Ms Foster rejected the suggestion that Mr Corbyn’s position on Brexit – with his opposition to the erection of economic barriers down the Irish Sea – was more unionist than either the positions of Theresa May or Boris Johnson.
“I think that’s probably a tactical attack for him on the Conservative Party as opposed to anything he really genuinely believes in terms of the United Kingdom,” she said.
Asked whether unionism would be in trouble if Mr Johnson secured a large majority, thus enabling him to ratify his deal in Parliament, Ms Foster replied: “Well, I don’t think they will come back with a large majority.
“But we will still continue to use our influence there if they do come back with a large majority and to make sure that Northern Ireland’s voice is heard with our strong team of DUP MPs.” – Press Association