Bruised Arlene Foster leads DUP into new Stormont talks

Days after unionism’s most disastrous election in the history of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster will today lead the DUP back into talks with Sinn Fein attempting to find a compromise to restore Stormont.

Michelle O'Neill of Sinn Fein (left) and Arlene Foster will lead their parties as talks aimed at restoring Stormont begin again
Michelle O'Neill of Sinn Fein (left) and Arlene Foster will lead their parties as talks aimed at restoring Stormont begin again

The talks will be led by Secretary of State Julian Smith – who Downing Street has confirmed will remain in post, at least for now – and will also involve the Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, this morning.

Mrs Foster is expected to meet Mr Smith and Mr Coveney today and the parties will sit down together on Wednesday, with the question of an Irish language act still a key issue.

The DUP leader has survived a bruising few days in which her future has been extensively discussed within the party.

However, despite DUP members privately telling this newspaper that she should resign or be pushed out, no major party figure has emerged to say that publicly.

Yesterday the DUP’s Westminster chief whip, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, said that he would not challenge Mrs Foster’s leadership.

However, Sir Jeffrey’s language was careful and did not preclude him entering a leadership race if someone else challenged Mrs Foster.

“There is absolutely no vacancy. The party is entirely focused on the talks on Monday and getting Stormont back up and running,” he told the Sunday Life.

“Arlene will be there leading our team. I and others will be there to support the negotiations and that’s our number one priority.”

Yesterday Mrs Foster said that the DUP would ensure that the talks ensured that no party could prevent the formation of a devolved administration.

She said: “Central to the talks must be the sustainability of the institutions so never again can one party hold the rest of Northern Ireland to ransom. Sinn Fein has barred everyone from government for three years despite other parties willing to take their seats.

“We live in a divided society and to move forward will require all the parties to step up to the plate. For my part, we will not be found wanting. Northern Ireland can only move forward when we are prepared to work together.”

Sinn Fein TD Martin Kenny appeared on RTE’s The Week in Politics yesterday, saying his party “absolutely wants to be back in Stormont” in January. “We don’t have any red lines, all we have called for is that all parties need to agree to implement the agreements that have already been reached,” he said.

UUP leader Steve Aiken, who also suffered a bad election, said: “If talks are to be convened this week then it must be on the basis of restoring sustainable, accountable and transparent government.

“There is little point in rushing back into Stormont simply because the DUP and Sinn Fein have decided that now the election is over, they are willing to set their own differences aside. The operation of the Executive, accountability mechanisms for ministers and spads, as well as the petition of concern must all be subject to major reform.”

TUV leader Jim Allister warned that unionism is being led in a direction which will prove damaging: “The pretence of Monday’s talks that a restored Stormont will bring stability and good government is a cruel deception ... any such restoration will inevitably be on Sinn Fein’s terms.”

He added: “The supplicant plea of the DUP that it has no red lines is as humiliating as it is inane. If ever there was a time for an immovable red line it is now. And that red line should be no Stormont talks until the terminal threat of an Irish Sea border is reversed.

“The fact that such hasn’t even been mentioned demonstrates, sadly, that power, any power, means more than our integral position within the UK. Having been led to electoral defeat, unionism is now being led down a path of folly.”