Belfast Telegraph

DUP's Foster urges Bradley to set budget as Sinn Fein say direct rule 'not acceptable'

By Suzanne Breen Political Editor

Arlene Foster is calling on the Secretary of State to set a budget and to take key decisions about Northern Ireland's hospitals, schools and infrastructure.

As the DUP leader last night urged Karen Bradley to act decisively and said Northern Ireland could not continue in limbo, Sinn Fein insisted that direct rule wasn't an option.

Mrs Bradley is due to update the House of Commons on the Stormont impasse today.

In a telephone call with the Secretary of State yesterday, Mrs Foster said she had asked her to not only set a budget but also to "take key decisions impacting on our schools, infrastructure and hospitals".

The DUP leader said: "Frontline staff have been living hand to mouth for too long. The Northern Ireland people deserve better. School principals, hospital mangers and infrastructure planners have been in limbo for months unsure of budgets and unable to get ministerial direction.

"I am not prepared to allow this to continue. Decisions need to be taken. We will be raising this issue again in Parliament (today)."

Mrs Foster said she planned to meet Prime Minister Theresa May later this week. She would voice her party's commitment to devolution "but not at any price", she said.

The DUP leader added: "I wanted a devolved government. I stand ready to form one tomorrow without any pre-conditions. Sinn Fein has been refusing to form a government for over 400 days until they have their own party political matters addressed."

But speaking in Dublin, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said: "Direct rule is not acceptable. Direct rule is not on the table.

"We have been clear - nationalism right across the country is clear on that point, the government in Dublin is clear on that point ...

"We have previous words from both governments which made very clear that direct rule is not the answer when the institutions falter."

Ms McDonald led a Sinn Fein delegation yesterday to meet Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tanaiste Simon Coveney. She said she had told them that a political vacuum must not develop.

"We reached a draft agreement with the DUP leadership. We were disappointed that the DUP walked away from that draft agreement and ended the talks process. The talks process has been collapsed. Direct rule is not an option. The two governments must act," she said.

The Sinn Fein president called for the immediate convening of a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference to reflect the "co-equal and co-guarantor status" of London and Dublin.

"The two governments must initiate this conference as a matter of urgency and move to implement previous agreements. These include an Irish Language Act, the release of funds for legacy inquests and progress the legacy mechanisms, as well as safeguarding the rights of citizens including the right to marriage equality," she said.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach spoke on the phone yesterday. In a statement, Number 10 said they had both expressed "disappointment that an agreement had not yet been reached to restore an executive". But Mrs May and Mr Varadkar had "recognised the progress and serious engagement made by the parties".

Number 10 insisted that the Prime Minister still "believed there was scope for agreement and reiterated the UK Government's priority was to get devolution up and running again in Northern Ireland".

In his statement, Mr Varadkar said: "As co-guarantor to the agreement, the government will continue to engage with the parties in Northern Ireland and the British government to support the urgent formation of a new executive.

"The government's firm position is that the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements must be implemented in full, and in this context the Taoiseach and Tanaiste reiterated that the Irish government does not want to see the introduction of direct rule in Northern Ireland."

Sinn Fein will meet Mrs May later this week.

Belfast Telegraph

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