Arlene Foster has called on the Secretary of State to urgently take charge of Northern Ireland’s finances to protect public services.
The DUP leader said she rang Karen Bradley on Monday in an effort to end the “limbo” affecting school principals, hospital bosses and other financial managers, caused by the failure to re-establish the Northern Ireland Executive.
“I asked the secretary of state for Northern Ireland to not only set a budget but also take key decisions impacting on our schools, infrastructure and hospitals,” Mrs Foster 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.”
Mrs Foster said she was “not prepared” to allow the situation to continue, and added: “Decisions need to be taken. We will be raising this issue again in Parliament tomorrow (Tuesday). I will also be meeting the prime minister later this week where I will affirm our commitment to devolution but not at any price.”
The DUP leader also said she remains determined to restore the devolved government, and “stands ready” to form one immediately without preconditions.
“Sinn Fein has been refusing to form a government for over 400 days until they have their own party political matters addressed,” she said.
Mrs Foster’s remarks come as pressure mounts on her party over Sinn Fein claims the two parties had reached a draft agreement aimed at salvaging devolution – which included an Irish language act.
Over the weekend, journalist Eamonn Maillie published a claim that the basis for a deal to restore power-sharing had been emailed to Sinn Fein by the DUP.
Mr Maillie’s claim echoed that of Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald who said agreement had been reached, but that the DUP had been unable to close the deal.
“That document arrived with Sinn Fein late on Friday night February 9, and it included a self-contained Irish language act,” he said.
Mr Maillie also said the draft agreement was “the culmination of a slew of versions” exchanged between Sinn Fein and the DUP negotiating teams, and added: “A detailed trace of this backwards and forwards is in place for the record.”
The claims prompted TUV leader Jim Allister to call for “unequivocal answers” from the DUP.
“If the DUP disputes the contentions, then let them publish minutes/emails which must exist to counter that narrative, if the DUP was indeed consistent in rejecting an Irish language act,” Mr Allister said.
Yesterday, a DUP spokesman stressed that “there was no agreement”.
He said: “The Sinn Fein propaganda machine is in full flow. The DUP would never agree to anything which could be described as a stand-alone or free-standing Irish language act where one culture is given supremacy over another.
“Northern Ireland now needs Her Majesty’s Government to set a budget and take decisions to help our schools, hospitals and infrastructure.
“Public services should not be punished because of Sinn Fein’s narrow party political interests. Northern Ireland cannot be held to ransom any longer.”
The spokesman said Mrs Foster was right to “call time” on the talks process.
“Sinn Fein collapsed the institutions 13 months ago and arrived with a shopping list of demands before restoring the Executive. They wanted a one-sided deal which could not have commanded the support of unionists.
“That’s not acceptable. If Northern Ireland is to move forward Sinn Fein needs to show respect for those who hold dear to their British identity. Repeatedly at the negotiations they were not prepared take such a step.”
He added: “There’s no respect for our flag, our young people who serve in the Armed Forces or even the name of the country. Sinn Fein needs to take time and reflect on their narrow-minded approach.”
Ahead of a meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney yesterday afternoon, Sinn Fein said direct rule for Northern Ireland was “not acceptable”.
Party leader Mrs McDonald said: “We have been clear – nationalism right across the country is clear on that point, the government in Dublin is clear on that point and I have to say that we have previous words from both governments which made very clear that direct rule is not the answer when the institutions falter.”
Sinn Fein are pressing for the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference to be convened in the absence of power-sharing.
The Sinn Fein leadership and Mrs Foster are expected to hold separate talks later this week with Prime Minister Theresa May.