Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster: I want devolution back, but Sinn Fein cannot be permitted to hold us all to ransom

By Arlene Foster

Over 400 days ago Sinn Fein collapsed the Northern Ireland Assembly. The only reason offered for that decision still cited today is the issue of "respect". Their rationale for collapsing Stormont was quickly replaced with a set of red lines aimed at preventing its reestablishment.

We must be very clear; resisting the red lines of others does not equate to setting down preconditions of your own. The DUP did not place any issue ahead of the needs of schools, hospitals, roads or any other public service in Northern Ireland.

Our concerns relating to an Irish Language Act were not first articulated last year, but have been consistent for over a decade. The Irish language is part of the cultural fabric of Northern Ireland and those who speak it deserve respect. Respect however must be a two-way street and those who do not share the vision outlined by Irish language campaign groups must also be respected.

A portrayal of the DUP as intransigent does not withstand basic scrutiny. Last summer I outlined my party's willingness to reach an accommodation on language and cultural issues. That offer was rejected within a few hours by both Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

Sinn Fein's position has been that devolution can only be restored on their terms. It is one which demands respect but is unwilling to offer it. It is a party president who talks of her "unionist brothers and sisters" but shouts "up the rebels" and "Tiocfaidh ar la" at those same brothers and sisters.

Perhaps it is purely coincidence that the Sinn Fein online bookshop is currently sold out of the 'Tiochfaidh Ar La' badges it stocks.

There is no coincidence however in the choice to shape those words on the badge in the image of an Armalite rifle.

Sinn Fein believe they can make demands of others that they do not feel obliged to abide by themselves. Little wonder that they might participate in negotiations believing others should accede to their demands without question.

Political progress will be built on accommodation that can be supported by both unionists and nationalists. It will not be achieved by one party demanding progress on their terms alone.

I wanted this round of negotiations to work. I am disappointed they didn't but I was not prepared to continue in talks where the other participant was not interested in publicly demonstrating respect for my British identity and culture. That's why I led my party out of those talks.

There was no agreement nor draft agreement. I never brought any recommendation to my party officers other than to end the current round of negotiations.

I dearly hoped that agreement could be found and devolution restored. Over the last 400 days more people have been added to waiting lists, community and voluntary sector organisations have scaled back work due to budgetary uncertainty and we have seen people with houses cut off by flood water.

They all want and need decisions to be taken which will have a direct impact on their lives.

I want those decisions to be taken by local ministers, but the only alternative now is for Westminster to set a budget and take decisions. The way to have avoided direct rule would have been to seek accommodation rather than demand a one-sided deal.

Despite the setbacks I remain committed to securing the restoration of devolution. I will work with anyone prepared to go forward in a spirit of true respect and accommodation. Should Sinn Fein remain committed to their 'ourselves alone' attitude, however, then it is for the Secretary of State to ensure that Northern Ireland is no longer held to ransom, with public services suffering as a result.

Belfast Telegraph

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