Belfast Telegraph

Potential deal with Tories offers huge opportunity for all Northern Ireland, insists Arlene Foster

By Suzanne Breen

Arlene Foster has said that a deal between the DUP and the Conservatives offers a "tremendous opportunity" - not just for her party but for the whole of Northern Ireland.

The DUP leader flew to London last night where she will today hold negotiations with Theresa May at Downing Street about keeping a Tory government in power.

Speaking alongside her party's deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, Mrs Foster pledged to use her newly-acquired influence wisely and she defended the DUP's role as kingmakers at Westminster.

"Parliamentarians would like to play as full a role as they possibly can in our national parliament, just as some in Sinn Fein would like to play a role in the Irish parliament," she said.

"I think this is a tremendous opportunity not just for this party but for Northern Ireland in terms of the nation, and we're looking forward to playing our part in that."

Mrs Foster's meeting with the Prime Minister comes as Mrs May desperately attempted to shore up her weak position within her party yesterday.

Appearing before her party's backbench MPs for the first time since the results, she accepted the blame for the Tories election disaster.

Members of the 1922 Committee banged tables and cheered as she arrived.

"I'm the person who got us into this mess and I'm the one who will get us out of it," she said as she vowed to remain as party leader for "as long as you want me".

Tory MPs said that Mrs May had spoken well with a "contrite and genuine" response which made an imminent challenge to her leadership less likely.

With talks between the Tories and the DUP expected to continue over coming days, it emerged last night that the Queen's Speech, which is due to take place next Monday, may have to be delayed.

The DUP may insist on several Tory manifesto pledges being watered down or axed completely.

First Secretary of State Damian Green said he couldn't "confirm anything" when asked if the Queen's Speech was still on the cards.

"We know those talks (with the DUP) are going well and also we know that, at this very important time, we want to produce a substantial Queen's Speech," he said.

The Queen may have to miss part of Royal Ascot - one of her favourite annual events - if her speech is delayed.

Meanwhile, Mrs Foster told Sinn Fein leaders that if they were concerned about her party's enhanced influence at Westminster, they should move to restore devolution at Stormont.

"If others decide that they are not coming back into the devolved administration here in Northern Ireland then those issues will have to be dealt with at Westminster," she said.

"It is really for Sinn Fein to decide where they want those powers to lie."

Her remarks came after Sinn Fein and other parties insisted that Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire could not chair the discussions to restore power-sharing.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood warned that the future of Northern Ireland must not be left "in the hands of a Tory-DUP government".

The Foyle MLA added: "If James Brokenshire thinks for one second he can be an independent chair of these talks, he is absolutely wrong.

"This talks process needs an independent chairman to get things done."

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams also insisted that Mr Brokenshire was "not an acceptable chair".

He predicted that any future Tory-DUP government would be a "coalition for chaos".

Mr Adams said: "I would hardly call that sort of arrangement stable.

"We don't believe that any deal with the DUP and English Tories will be good for the people here.

"Any deal which undercuts in any way the process here, or the Good Friday and other agreements, is one which has to be opposed by progressives."

However, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds raised the question of whether Sinn Fein was now ruling itself out of any future coalition government in the Republic because it would be "a breach of the Good Friday Agreement".

Mr Dodds added: "If that's what they say about us, then it applies to them equally."

Mr Brokenshire said that the Government remained "four square" behind the Good Friday Agreement and again warned that the June 29 deadline was "final and immovable", with direct rule on the cards if a deal wasn't reached.

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