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DUP chief Foster vows to forge best deal for Northern Ireland ahead of talks with May

By Suzanne Breen

Arlene Foster says she is committed to securing the best deal for everyone in Northern Ireland as she today leaves for London ahead of a meeting with the Prime Minister.

The DUP leader is set to hold talks with Mrs May in Downing Street tomorrow as the two sides edge closer to a likely agreement which will keep the Tories in power in exchange for additional funds for Northern Ireland.

Setting out her priorities for the negotiations in today's Belfast Telegraph, Mrs Foster said that the DUP's focus would be on strengthening the Union, a good deal on Brexit, and getting "Stormont up and running again for the benefit of all".

"When I meet with the Prime Minister in London tomorrow, I will be mindful of our responsibility to help bring stability to the nation at this time of challenge," she said.

"We will be working to agree arrangements that can provide the whole nation with good government. The DUP will work to bring about outcomes that are beneficial to all and in Parliament Northern Ireland's case will be centre stage."

Mrs Foster spoke of a "political earthquake" in the wake of last week's General Election which saw her party emerge as kingmakers at Westminster. "Our increased strength at this election is indeed timely," she said.

And she hit out at abuse that the DUP has received from politicians and media across Britain as it holds the balance of power in the House of Commons.

"Some of the national commentary, and analysis about the party, and by extension its voters, has been downright inaccurate and misleading. I have no doubt over time those responsible will look foolish in the extreme," she said.

In an indirect reference to Sinn Fein, she said that it was time for those locally "complaining the loudest about our position of influence" to recognise that "the time for unreasonable behaviour and unrealistic demands are over".

Mrs Foster claimed that coming weeks represented "a real opportunity to heed the will of the people and capitalise on the opportunities that lie ahead" for everyone in Northern Ireland.

The DUP leader set out her hopes as Mrs May reshuffled her cabinet in order to shore up her increasingly shaky position. In a shock return to government, Michael Gove was appointed Environment Secretary. The Prime Minister had sacked him as Justice Secretary last year.

Meanwhile, James Brokenshire, who remains as Northern Ireland Secretary, last night warned the local parties that direct rule from Westminster was on the cards unless they reached a deal by June 29 - a "final and immoveable" deadline.

"If they do not, the power to make decisions passes to others. Their choice in the next three weeks will shape Northern Ireland's future," he added.

As talks to restore devolution resumed at Stormont today, nationalist politicians claimed that a likely deal between the DUP and the Tories compromised Mr Brokenshire's role as an independent chair of the discussions.

But the Secretary of State denied that any deal would conflict with the Government's obligations under the Good Friday Agreement to be impartial in its dealings in Northern Ireland.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny expressed concern that London's neutrality would be compromised in a phone call with Theresa May. He said "nothing should happen to put the Good Friday Agreement at risk".

However, Irish Foreign Minister, Charlie Flanagan, said that a Tory-DUP agreement would "not necessarily" undermine the peace process.

When asked about suggestions that a deal contradicted Westminster's impartiality as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, he told ITV: "Well, not necessarily the case. Of course, it remains to be seen what the nature of that deal is. But this is an issue I did address with Secretary of State James Brokenshire."

The two men are due to meet in Belfast today.

The SDLP's Nichola Mallon, insisted that Mr Brokenshire couldn't continue as a mediator of the talks and called for an independent figure to be appointed.

"How can you have a Secretary of State sitting as an honest broker when they already have a deal with one of the parties sitting around the table? It is just not possible to be neutral in this context, and anyone who pretends otherwise is ludicrous," she told the BBC.

Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, said that the parties should consider seizing the initiative and inviting an independent chair to oversee proceedings.

Several Tory MPs yesterday expressed alarm about the prospect of their party forming a pact with the DUP. Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, defended the prospect of a deal but distanced the Conservatives from the DUP's views on social issues.

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