Foster cautious on bridging Troubles impasse by May

First Minister Arlene Foster is pictured on Thursday, January 14, with Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers at Stormont Castle during their first meeting since Mrs Foster became First Minister of Northern Ireland on Monday

First Minister Arlene Foster is pictured on Thursday, January 14, with Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers at Stormont Castle during their first meeting since Mrs Foster became First Minister of Northern Ireland on Monday

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Stormont’s new First Minister has struck a cautious note on whether an impasse over Troubles legacy mechanisms can be resolved before the upcoming elections.

Arlene Foster said it was vital that political efforts to find consensus involved full engagement with victims of the conflict.

Last November’s agreement between Stormont’s leaders and the UK and Irish governments resolved a number of wrangles besetting the power-sharing administration in Belfast, but notably did not find consensus on legacy issues.

On Thursday Mrs Foster and other Stormont politicians met with Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan to discuss the implementation of the Fresh Start deal.

New mechanisms for tackling the past, including a new investigative unit, had been agreed by politicians in late 2014 - in the Stormont House Agreement - but they have since been derailed by a row between Sinn Fein and the UK Government.

The root of the impasse is the Government’s insistence on retaining a veto, on national security grounds, over disclosing certain historic documents on Troubles killings.

As a consequence, the Fresh Start deal has been heavily criticised by a number of victims.

After the meeting at Stormont House, Belfast, Mrs Foster said “good progress” was being made on implementing what had been agreed in the Fresh Start deal.

“Good progress is being made and we will continue to make that progress,” she said.

The Democratic Unionist leader said the outstanding legacy issues were discussed at the meeting.

“It’s very important, we feel, to continue to engage on those very important issues, but, as well as that, we need to talk to individual victims and the victims groups as well, to engage them and to discuss the issues with them as we move forward,” she said.

Asked if progress could be made before the upcoming Assembly elections and Irish general election south of the border, Mrs Foster said: “I think we are very conscious of the fact that not only do we have Assembly elections but there is going to be an election in the Republic of Ireland as well, so I think what’s important at present is we continue to engage with victims groups and engage with each other.

“Whether we can make any substantive progress before the election, either in the Republic of Ireland or here, we’ll have to wait and see.

“But I think it’s important that we continue to engage.”

Mr Flanagan said commitments made under the Fresh Start Agreement on ending paramilitarism and tackling associated criminality were already well advanced.

“Work is also under way with the British Government on preparing the international agreement required for the establishment of the four person body which will monitor progress on ending paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland,” he said.

During the review meeting Mr Flanagan said he reported on work already under way on delivering the financial commitments agreed by the Irish government, including support for North-South infrastructure like the A5 road and for the North West Gateway investment initiative.

“We agreed that it is now important to maintain this momentum if we are to make sure that the benefits of the Fresh Start Agreement are fully realised and enjoyed by people of Northern Ireland,” he added.

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