Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster accuses Sinn Fein 'heavy brigade' of scuppering Stormont deal

By Suzanne Breen

Arlene Foster has accused Sinn Fein's "heavy brigade" of opposing a pragmatic approach to the Stormont talks and has called on republicans to "get serious".

Addressing the DUP annual conference in Belfast on Saturday, Mrs Foster claimed that while Sinn Fein blamed everybody else for the ongoing political stalemate, it was republicans who were holding up progress.

But she maintained that the DUP remained committed to devolution and she repeated her offer to support Irish language legislation if devolution was restored.

"While we have more influence than ever before at Westminster, we also want to see our local institutions functioning and delivering for the people of Northern Ireland," she said.

"We would have re-established the Executive eight months ago without any preconditions. We would have got the government going again while dealing with issues of language and culture in parallel, but such a pragmatic approach was rejected by the heavy brigade in Sinn Fein."

The DUP leader claimed Sinn Fein was being irresponsible.

"They walked away from office earlier this year knowing what that would mean for public services and the hurt and harm it would cause hard working people," she said.

"They protest against health cuts yet held that very portfolio in the last Executive, where they would have been able to do more good than complaining at public meetings.

"They moan about what they call Tory austerity yet their Finance Minister failed to bring in a budget, leaving it to a Conservative Secretary of State.

"They complain about Brexit while refusing to form an Executive or take their seats in Parliament.

"They go to their conference and glory in the murder of the IRA. Yet when you listen to Sinn Fein they blame everyone else. It's time Sinn Fein got serious."

In negotiating its 'confidence and supply' agreement with the Tories, Mrs Foster stressed the DUP's interests were "not narrow and not sectional".

She added: "We have ensured that pensioners in every part of our kingdom will have the security of knowing that the triple lock on pensions is safe and that the winter fuel payment will remain universal.

"Our unionism doesn't end at the Irish Sea.

"We will always fight hard for the best deal for Northern Ireland, but we care about vulnerable people in Bristol and Birmingham every bit as much as those in Belfast."

She insisted that while she wanted a "sensible Brexit" with no hard border, she remained opposed to EU special status for Northern Ireland.

Responding to the speech, Sinn Fein's Northern leader Michelle O'Neill criticised Mrs Foster's support for Brexit and for Theresa May.

"Tory austerity measures have had disastrous consequences for communities across the North of Ireland," she said.

"This will be further exacerbated by the threat which Brexit will bring. The DUP support for these policies is against the interests and wishes of the majority of people in the North."

Mrs O'Neill insisted that her party was determined to restore power-sharing. "Locally elected ministers are best placed to run local public services and fight back against the austerity imposed by the British Government," she said.

But she added: "A majority of citizens in the North expect and are entitled to the same rights enjoyed by citizens across these islands - language and marriage equality rights, and due process in all aspects of the legal and judicial system, including inquests."

TUV leader Jim Allister said Mrs Foster had no mandate to concede Irish language legislation "given the basis of her last Assembly election campaign".

He accused her of "offering to concede the principle of unnecessary Irish language legislation".

He said: "With or without the fig-leaf of supposed Ulster-Scots promotion, there can be no justification for ensconcing in law language rights which will be exploited to further hollow out our Britishness and turn the public service into a cold house for non-Irish speakers.

"This is a price no unionist should pay, even for the perceived kudos of being joint First Minister."

Mr Allister said the DUP leader should recognise that mandatory coalition was "a busted flush" and use her party's influence at Westminster to insist on workable institutions at Stormont.

"Policy built on beseeching Sinn Fein to come back is visionless, made worse by offering to feed their insatiable Irish language demands," he added.

Belfast Telegraph

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