Foster accuses Varadkar of interfering in NI after questioning fresh talks claim

Arlene Foster has accused the Irish premier of interfering in Northern Ireland affairs, questioning his claim that new talks to break the Stormont deadlock are set for the autumn.

The DUP leader responded in robust terms to Leo Varadkar’s assertion that the UK and Irish governments would try to reconvene negotiations between local parties, potentially in October.

DUP leader Arlene Foster

DUP leader Arlene Foster

The former first minister said she was not aware of any such proposal and had not been informed of any by the London Government.

“We haven’t heard from our own Government in relation to this, all we’ve had is comments from the Irish Republic’s Government,” she said.

“That does cause me concern because in the last round of talks the Irish Government tried to interfere in Strand One issues (issues related to Northern Ireland’s internal government).

“We had to push back a number times and say to them that, in relation to the internal matters of Northern Ireland, those are matters for the United Kingdom Government and the parties in Northern Ireland.”

In an interview with BBC Radio Ulster, she added: “As I understand it there isn’t a proposal at the moment, there are just comments made by the Irish Government.”

The ministerial executive at Stormont collapsed 19 months ago and repeated rounds of negotiations have failed to restore it.

On Tuesday, Taoiseach Mr Varadkar told a media briefing in Dublin: “We would intend, in the autumn some time, trying again to get the parties in Northern Ireland together.

“I think the absence of any clarity around Brexit makes that very difficult but if we can have that in October, I think there is an opportunity, certainly before the end of the year, to get the assembly and executive up and running.”

Stormont crashed in January 2017 amid a row about a botched green energy scheme. It later widened to take in issues such as the Irish language, LGBT rights and the legacy of the Troubles.

The last bid to resurrect the troubled institutions failed in February when the DUP pulled the plug on talks with Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein insisted a draft deal had been signed off with the DUP at that point, and accused the party of getting cold feet in the face of an internal revolt from grassroots members angry about potential concessions in the dispute over the Irish language.

The DUP denied the claim, insisting it exchanged numerous papers with Sinn Fein during the negotiation process but none amounted to a draft agreement.

The main logjam relates to Sinn Fein’s insistence on a free-standing piece of legislation to protect Irish language speakers. The DUP will legislate to protect Irish, but only as part of wider legislation that takes in other cultures, such as the Ulster Scots tradition.

On Wednesday, Mrs Foster made clear that her opposition to a standalone Irish language act was “non-negotiable”.

On Monday, in an interview with the Press Association, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said the party’s stance in February remained its “bottom line” going into any fresh negotiations.

On Wednesday, she told Radio Ulster: “We can talk from here to eternity, what we need is delivery, we need delivery on agreement, we need delivery on people’s rights.

“I think constructive politics, grown-up politics, responsible politics, recognises that the days of prevarication and allowing the DUP to hold back change are over and any set of talks needs to be premised on that very, very clear understanding.”

In response to Mr Varadkar’s comments on Tuesday, the UK Government said: “The Secretary of State (Karen Bradley) and UK Government’s top priority remains the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland.

“She will continue to work with all the Northern Ireland parties - and with the Irish Government within the three-stranded approach - to remove the barriers to restoring the executive and a fully functioning assembly.”