DUP leader Arlene Foster has warned Sinn Fein to “get serious” about the terms of a deal to restore Stormont powersharing.
Accusing republicans of using rights issues as a cloak to “break unionists”, Mrs Foster told her party conference in Belfast she was committed to resurrecting devolution, eleven months on from its collapse, but insisted any agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein had to be balanced.
The former Stormont first minister got a rousing reception from Union flag-waving party faithful at the DUP’s first conference since it became political kingmakers at Westminster.
She used her speech to restate her party’s determination to see powersharing restored, insisting the party blocking its return was Sinn Fein.
Mrs Foster also warned European leaders the DUP would not accept a Brexit deal that forced Northern Ireland to adopt a different customs arrangement from the rest of the UK - Europe’s preferred way of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Reflecting the party’s new-found influence at Westminster since it struck a confidence and supply deal with Theresa May’s minority government, senior Tories Damian Green and Julian Smith were among guests at the event in the La Mon hotel.
Mrs Foster told delegates: “It’s time Sinn Fein got serious.
“This party will conclude a balanced deal but we will not be party to a one-sided arrangement that rewards intransigent behaviour.
“Northern Ireland needs a government and we cannot continue without ministers.
“Time is short and those in Sinn Fein blocking the restoration of local decision-making need to decide whether they want to do business with us or have direct rule ministers in place.
“I still believe that devolution is the best way to govern Northern Ireland but to do that in a way that delivers for all of our people we need serious partners in government.”
Significant issues still stand in the way of a deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein that would see them return as coalition partners in a devolved executive.
A return to Westminster direct rule looks a more likely prospect at present.
One of the key sticking points is a Sinn Fein demand for a stand-alone piece of legislation to protect Irish language speakers in the region.
The DUP will countenance such laws, but only as part of a wider Act that also protects British culture in Northern Ireland.
“The Irish language is spoken and enjoyed by thousands of people in all parts of Northern Ireland,” said Mrs Foster.
“It does no damage to our unionism or the Union we cherish.
“I respect the Irish language and those who speak it.
“However, respect isn’t a one-way street. Respect works both ways.
“It is time that Sinn Fein started to respect our British culture.
“For too long they have shown nothing but disdain and disrespect for the national flag, the royal family, the armed forces, British symbols, the constitutional reality and the very name of this country.
“So we are up for respect. And we’re up for rights. Republicans like to lecture us about rights. They’re fond of rights now. They weren’t so concerned about that most fundamental of rights - the right to life - during the Troubles.
“We are for rights. We respect rights. What we oppose is using the cloak of rights as a Trojan horse designed to break unionists.”
During the address, Mrs Foster reflected on a rollercoaster year for her and her party.
From facing down intense calls to quit amid a furore about a botched green energy scheme that ultimately torpedoed the Stormont executive, to standing on the steps of Downing Street with the fate of the Prime Minister in her hands, 2017 will not be one Mrs Foster forgets in a hurry.
“If the last year has proved anything, it is that we live in an uncertain world,” she said.
“We’ve been through a lot together over these past 12 months.”
Responding to Mrs Foster’s speech, Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill insisted her party was committed to the restoration of powersharing.
But she said it could only be restored on the basis that people in the region were afforded the “same rights enjoyed by citizens across these islands”.
“Locally-elected ministers are best placed to run local public services and fight back against the austerity imposed by the British government,” she said.
Mrs O’Neill also criticised the DUP’s support of Brexit and Mrs May’s government.
“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.”