Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster in pledge to restore devolution as current crisis 'cannot continue'

By Steven Alexander

DUP leader Arlene Foster has said her New Year resolution is to restore devolution - and to do it in Northern Ireland, rather than a stately home in England.

The former First Minister was responding to speculation that the venue for the stalled talks to resurrect Stormont could move from Northern Ireland.

Mrs Foster said: "Many of us will use the New Year to make resolutions. Just as we will personally set ourselves goals as to how we hope to improve our lives, so too we should seek to bring new energy and ambition to our politics. Northern Ireland has in effect been without a government for almost a year. That is unacceptable and simply unsustainable.

"Every day we are seeing the impact of having no government. No Budget. No progress on the recommendations contained in the Bengoa Report. And no advancement of essential reforms in education.

"This cannot continue."

Mrs Foster said she and her party remained ready to return to government immediately "without the need for any pre-conditions to be met".

"By contrast, Sinn Fein now refuse to even engage in talks. They tell us that they want to see devolution return but their actions suggest otherwise," she said. "Their long list of red lines are prioritised over jobs, schools and hospitals. What's hurting hardworking people is the absence of a government, not the absence of language legislation. Recent rounds of talks have been bedevilled by the setting of pre-conditions by Sinn Fein.

"Let us re-enter talks with one shared pre-condition - that we will redouble our efforts to restore devolution and start taking the decisions that the people of Northern Ireland so desperately need. Let's set ourselves a short time frame.

"And let's do it here at home rather than in some fancy English stately home."

Alliance leader Naomi Long MLA said a change of attitude, not venue, is required to see the talks reach a successful conclusion in 2018.

Mrs Long said that while 2017 had been a frustrating year politically, 2018 promised more, if parties showed a renewed commitment to restoring the institutions.

"This past year was one in which political progress was grindingly slow and where relationships between parties became incredibly strained and fractious.

"Thanks to the ongoing impasse, people are hurting and our public services are suffering, all while we continue to see an absence of locally accountable political decision-making," she said. "However, instead of a change of talks venue, as has been rumoured, we need to see a change of attitude from some of the participants.

"If so, I have no doubt we can still move forward together in a respectful and cooperative manner, restoring the institutions and delivering the progress Northern Ireland desperately needs.

"For that progress to be made, it will also require changes to the way the talks process is conducted, to combat tension and mistrust between parties, as well as between parties and the two governments. That will involve appointing an independent facilitator to ensure negotiations are as inclusive and focused as possible."

In his message, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood urged the public to reflect on where a year of failure had left us.

The Foyle MLA said that while people may "not have fallen in love with devolution, all of us will inevitably come to loathe Tory/DUP direct rule".

Mr Eastwood said direct rule does not need to be inevitable.

He said that "in the absence of a dramatic change in their failed strategies, Sinn Fein and the DUP are set to fully and freely hand power back to the British Government for the long-term".

"Under their failed leadership, the North's voice is not only an afterthought in terms of Brexit but our economy and public services have been an afterthought during one year of talking between the DUP and Sinn Fein."

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