Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster says Sinn Fein haven’t asked her to step aside as talks continue for a third day

By Noel McAdam

Sinn Fein has not directly asked Arlene Foster to stand down until an inquiry reports on the 'cash for ash' scandal, the DUP leader has claimed.

As the British and Irish governments came together to chair their first joint meetings yesterday, the DUP and Sinn Fein also held their third meeting in as many days, albeit with no details released afterwards about their discussions.

"I think it is wiser to focus on the issue of restoring devolution rather than anything else," Mrs Foster said.

Sinn Fein has publicly stated on several occasions that the party will not support Mrs Foster as First Minister until her role in the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal has been clarified by an inquiry.

Asked if Sinn Fein had told her directly they will not support her nomination as First Minister, Mrs Foster said: "Maybe they didn't feel they had to. I am not saying it may not be an issue for them, it may well be an issue for them."

She said if the parties get into a situation where Sinn Fein is making demands, then the DUP would in turn want to have a say over who Sinn Fein nominates.

Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan joined the meetings for the first time and said he detected a willingness to act constructively.

"We are operating under a very strict time frame," he said.

"I detect willingness on the part of all parties to engage constructively on what is a challenge."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he believed there was a great opportunity to deal with all the issues in the talks. And he said Mr Brokenshire had been left in no doubt about his party's position that the Northern Ireland Secretary could not chair talks on dealing with the legacy of the Troubles and victims' issues.

He added: "I want to be clear with unionists that the SDLP is not out to destroy your culture, we are not out to marginalise or mistreat you or your community. It is now time to secure a positive accommodation between nationalism and unionism that allows us to meet the challenges that we all face.

"And key among those challenges is the threat of Brexit to Northern Ireland. In a few days, Theresa May will trigger Article 50 beginning the biggest constitutional upheaval on these islands since partition. We need a government to deal with that. We need a government to defend the will of our people. We need a government to prepare for the most complicated set of negotiations ever entered in to on this continent."

Meanwhile, Mr Brokenshire spoke about the need for an Executive to be in place to "take the work forward" in terms of delivering on the health service, education and other issues.

But TUV leader Jim Allister questioned Mr Flanagan's involvement.

"Issues relating to the internal affairs of Northern Ireland should include no role for the government of the Republic of Ireland, yet the Irish Foreign Minister is joining the talks today," he said.

"David Trimble refused to engage with the Irish Government when Strand One (Northern Ireland only) issues were discussed during the Belfast Agreement and in October 2014 Peter Weir rightly said that 'no self-respecting unionist will be present in any meeting to discuss internal Northern Ireland business where a seat at the table is given to the Irish representatives'.

"So what is the justification for Charlie Flanagan's involvement today?" he asked.

Sinn Fein and the DUP now have three weeks to reach a deal and if a government cannot be formed within that time then, under law, another election can be called. If no power-sharing government is formed, power could return to Westminster.

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