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No quick resolution for Troubles victims, Foster admits in first Question Time grilling by MLAs

By Noel McAdam

First Minister Arlene Foster has warned the deadlock stalling progress for victims of the Troubles will not be resolved before the Assembly elections in May.

At her first Question Time since replacing Peter Robinson last week, Mrs Foster told MLAs she had to be honest with the victims sector.

But she was more upbeat on achieving progress over a strategy for childcare before the Assembly winds up for the May 5 poll.

And she was also optimistic that an over-arching blueprint to tackle poverty should be in place in the near future.

Although she has fulfilled the role several times in the past in an 'acting' capacity for Mr Robinson, this was Mrs Foster's first grilling by Assembly members as the fully-fledged First Minister.

All the main parties united in congratulations and wished her well, with outgoing SDLP North Belfast MLA Alban Maginness praising her professionalism as former Enterprise Minister.

And among her own ranks, DUP East Belfast member Sammy Douglas quipped: "Long may she reign".

The so-called Fresh Start deal between her party and Sinn Fein, with the London and Dublin governments, failed to include any progress on dealing with the legacy from the Troubles - building on the Stormont House Agreement of the year before.

Mechanisms including a new investigative unit were agreed but have been knocked off course in a stand-off between Sinn Fein and the British Government over the release of sensitive national security information.

Quizzed yesterday by Alliance's Chris Lyttle and John Dallat of the SDLP, Mrs Foster said: "We were very, very close to having a comprehensive agreement on dealing with the past.

"That is why I think it is important to continue to engage with our own Government, with the government of the Republic of Ireland and most importantly with the victims' sector in trying to move this issue forward.

"But in doing so we have to be honest and open about the chances of doing that in a particular time.

"...I have to be honest with victims that I think it is not going to happen before the next election because there is an election coming in the Republic of Ireland; we have an election in May and I just don't think that we are going to be able to deal with those issues in the short timescale that we have."

In a generally positive first appearance, Mrs Foster also revealed she will attend an Easter Rising-related event in Dublin, even though she reiterated her opposition to taking part in any official commemoration.

"...I have already taken up an invitation to attend a Church of Ireland event in Christ Church in Dublin in February on what was going on in 1916," she told Alban Maginness.

He suggested a proper and in-depth historical analysis of the events surrounding the Easter Rising and other events throughout 1916 could help people North and South derive some lessons from what happened in the past.

Mrs Foster said: "There are very many young people in Northern Ireland today who, frankly, have no cognisance of what we are talking about.

"They are more interested in what is going on in 2016 than in what happened in 1916.

"If we are to look backwards, that is all very good and we should do that. I will do that."

But she also agreed with Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy that "there are some who are engaged in trying to write a particular narrative about what happened here over this past 30 to 40 years. Some are trying to rewrite what happened in 1916, for goodness sake. We should not be surprised about all of that (but) I will resist any attempt to rewrite what happened in the past."

She also called for a "reality check" around police funding for long-running legacy cases: "If the police are being ordered to do particular issues then they should have the funding that comes with that."

PSNI chief constable George Hamilton (left) warned last year that stringent budget cuts had left the legacy investigations unit severely overstretched.

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