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Arlene Foster: I'm ready to talk - DUP leader pledges to lead party into negotiations

Sunday Life Exclusive: Time to talk - Foster and O'Neill set to go head to head

By Christopher Woodhouse and Ali Gordon

Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill are ready to start talks in a bid to do a deal to restore the Stormont power sharing Executive.

Mrs Foster is determined to remain as party chief and lead her party into negotiations.

But last night DUP MP Gavin Robinson raised the possibility that she might step aside as the party’s First Minister designate until the RHI inquiry has concluded.

He stressed it would be for Arlene Foster alone to decide but said his party was keen to make devolved government work.

“As a party that wants to see devolved government in Northern Ireland succeed we are not going to present impediments to progress,” the East Belfast MP told Stephen Nolan on Radio 5 Live. “But we are not going to have another party determine who is going to lead our party.”

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams yesterday dismissed the notion that Arlene Foster standing aside as DUP leader was a pre-condition to his party entering talks.

But he confirmed that Sinn Fein would not accept Mrs Foster as First Minister until the inquiry into the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) shambles had concluded.

Mr Adams stressed “this is not a pre-condition to negotiations starting on Monday if the DUP are up for it.”

Sinn Fein’s northern chief Michelle O’Neill and Mrs Foster have signalled their intentions to thrash out an agreement following Thursday’s historic election that put Sinn Fein within a whisker of overtaking the DUP as Northern Ireland’s largest party in the Assembly.

Writing exclusively for Sunday Life Mrs Foster — who has faced criticism of her leadership style — brushed off speculation that she should resign by outlining her commitment to working with other parties to form a lasting Executive when crunch talks begin tomorrow.

<< Arlene Foster: I am ready to work with other parties to get the Executive up and running again>>

Alliance are also in upbeat mood following its good showing and yesterday party leader Naomi Long said the election put the prospect of same sex marriage in Northern Ireland “within reach”.

“With Petition of Concern no longer in DUP’s hands (we) have opportunity for change. Equal Marriage within reach. Who says voting doesn’t matter?” she posted.

Opponents have accused Mrs Foster and her party of arrogance over the RHI debacle, gay marriage rights and the Irish language in particular.

But while remaining defiant over her position, the DUP leader appeared to signal a slight change of tone following the chastening election result which saw her party lose 10 seats including some of its biggest names.

She said: “I am listening not just to those who voted for the DUP but to those who cast their votes for other parties. We must all respect each other’s mandates and work together for the benefit of all the people of Northern Ireland.

“When the talks begin on Monday I will seek to work with other parties to create the circumstances where we can not just get the Executive up and running again, but do so in a way in which it will endure.”

Her ‘can do’ attitude was mirrored at a press conference in west Belfast yesterday by jubilant Sinn Fein leaders who were celebrating an election triumph which saw them closing the gap on the DUP to just one seat.

Party President Gerry Adams said: “We want to engage as quickly as possible in a process to put the political institutions in place once again.”

Sinn Fein’s Assembly leader Michelle O’Neill added: “We have a period of three weeks in front of us and whilst the task isn’t easy I think that it’s achievable if people come at it with the right attitude.”

Both the DUP and Sinn Fein have just three weeks to hammer out an agreement to restore the power-sharing Executive.

If a deal has not been reached by then, Secretary of State James Brokenshire, who republicans are adamant must not chair the talks, has the power to call fresh elections.

However, the prospect of going to the polls for a third time in a year seems to be the last thing on the DUP and Sinn Fein’s minds.

Triumphant

 The mood at Sinn Fein’s offices on the Falls Road was triumphant, with Mr Adams describing the election as a “watershed” and claiming “the notion of a permanent or perpetual unionist majority has been demolished”.

Sinn Fein came within just over 1,000 votes of being returned as the largest party in Thursday’s poll. The DUP suffered a series of losses with former minister Nelson McCausland and party chairman Lord Morrow among the casualties.

Mike Nesbitt resigned as leader of the Ulster Unionist party after its disappointing performance which saw them lose high profile figures including  Danny Kennedy in Newry and Armagh.

Mr Kennedy told Sunday Life the party would reflect on the result as it prepares to elect a new leader.

“I think it’s important we take our time to do that but also to give ourselves enough space to have the right discussions,” he said.

Mr Kennedy also dismissed any possibility of a split, saying the party remains united.

“This is a setback, a considerable setback, we don’t underestimate it but we will take the necessary time to review things,” he said.

For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, unionists no longer have an overall majority in Stormont.

The SDLP and Alliance had a good result retaining their seat totals. Naomi Long’s Alliance in particular had a good election with its vote share rising.

Following the loss of 10 of their MLAs, the DUP no longer has the power to trigger the controversial petition of concern that has prevented same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.

But while many people have been celebrating a possible victory for marriage equality, unionist MLAs from other parties have said they would still oppose same sex marriage if it came to a vote.

“I am against gay marriage and that is still the case,” East Antrim UUP MLA Roy Beggs told Sunday Life.

“Nobody is sure what rules may apply for a petition of concern or if there will even be an Assembly, nobody knows. Where do we go from here?

“I wouldn’t be honouring the people who voted for me if I voted any differently because I have spoken openly in the past about my views on the matter.”

It is expected that North Antrim MLA Jim Allister will also sign any petition of concern which seeks to block equal marriage.

Mr Allister has previously said:  “TUV is a party committed to traditional family values and will continue to resist attempts by the homosexual lobby to introduce the oxymoron which is same sex marriage to Northern Ireland.”

A valid  petition of concern requires the signature of 30 MLAs.

In the previous mandate the DUP, with 38 seats, was the only party that could table one on its own. In 2015, 94 MLAs voted on equal marriage, of which 43 were in favour.

Despite the DUP’s poor result, Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said Mrs Foster’s position as leader was secure.

He said yesterday: “I am not aware of any election in the past where the leader of the largest party resigns because they have won the election.

“Arlene is leading the largest party and we need to get on with the job of forming a government that works for us all.”

Setback

There was however a setback for Sinn Fein last night in Dublin, where both the main political parties ruled out any  coalition with them in the wake of their Assembly gains.

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin and three of the contenders in the Fine Gael leadership race yesterday insisted they would not form a government with Adams’s party in the Dail.

Mr Martin said: “Sinn Fein has not changed, so government with Sinn Fein will not be considered.”

>>Results centre - select a constituency - every result as it happened -

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