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Foster calls for more Stormont talks and says she's 'saddened' by Prince Andrew controversy

The DUP leader also shared her thoughts on an Irish unity poll.

DUP leader Arlene Foster
DUP leader Arlene Foster
Image: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

DUP LEADER ARLENE Foster has called for the resumption of negotiations with Sinn Féin after the UK general election in a bid to break the Stormont impasse over the Irish language.

Foster insisted the dispute, which she said centred on the “details” of proposed legislation, should not be allowed to prevent the restoration of the devolved institutions any longer.

In a wide-ranging interview with PA, Foster also shared her thoughts on an Irish unity poll and Prince Andrew. 

The Irish language standoff remains the main obstacle in the way of a return to power sharing.

Sinn Féin has insisted it will not return to a coalition with the DUP until there is an agreement to pass a stand-alone Irish Language Act.

The DUP has said it is willing to agree legislative protections for Irish speakers but only as part of wider cultural laws that would also include British and Ulster Scots traditions.

Foster said her approach was the “right way forward”.

“There are many people in Northern Ireland who love the Irish language, and we have no desire to put a barrier up to them accessing public services,” she said.

“And therefore we believe there’s ways of doing that through legislation and, indeed, through facilitation, and we can do that – that’s not a problem. But why are we holding up the Assembly while we’re trying to work out the details of all of that?”

She reiterated her proposal to restore the Assembly and set up a parallel process to find a resolution to the language dispute.

Irish unity poll 

In 2013, Foster suggested a unity poll would help to validate Northern Ireland’s position in the United Kingdom.

Asked if that remained her view in the context of the renewed focus on unification as a result of Brexit, she said: “I have to say I think it would reinforce our position within the Union because clearly we would win that unity poll.

I think the unfortunate thing is under the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, there is the capacity to call that unity poll every seven years then after that, and I think that would be hugely destabilising.

“Because you’re just working in seven-year cycles then to the next unity poll and the next unity poll.”

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has said such a vote should to be held in the next five years. According to a new opinion poll, half (51%) people in the Republic would like to see a referendum take place within that time frame. 

2.48384200 Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald Source: PA Images

A poll carried out in September found that 46% of people in Northern Ireland said they would choose to join the Republic, while 45% said they would vote to stay in the UK. 

This broke down to 51% to 49% in favour of unification when the ‘don’t knows’ and those who said they would not vote were excluded. 

12-point plan 

The DUP last week published a 12-point plan aimed at tackling some of the issues created by the devolution crisis.

Foster said “all roads lead back to devolution” and noted that McDonald had signalled a desire to return to Stormont at her recent party conference speech.

“I hope that she does want to see devolution returned because I certainly do,” she said.

But I can’t move anywhere without the cooperation of the other parties. And therefore, if we’re genuinely wanting to move Northern Ireland forward, which of course I am, let us get into those negotiations after the General Election is over and let’s get devolution back again.

However, Foster also criticised McDonald for declining to criticise the attempted murder of her late father John during the Troubles.

The DUP leader had accused Sinn Féin of being selective on what it will condemn, after it criticised loyalist banners targeting its election candidate John Finucane.

She had asked would it also condemn the IRA attempted murders of her father and of DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds.

McDonald declined the opportunity to condemn the incidents last week, instead expressing “regret”.

Foster responded: “Of course all right-thinking people would condemn the attempted murder of two fathers.

“I mean, I don’t think that that’s something that should have caused any great difficulty but unfortunately Sinn Féin have taken up the usual position in relation to that.

“When someone comes to your home, to try and murder you, it needs more than regret, it should be condemned outright.”

Her comments come amid a row about loyalist banners that have appeared in the North Belfast constituency making a series of allegations against Sinn Féin candidate John Finucane and his family, including his solicitor father Pat, who was murdered by loyalist paramilitaries during the conflict.

McDonald has called on unionist leaders to condemn what she described as a “sinister and dangerous campaign of threats and intimidation” against the Finucanes.

Prince Andrew 

Foster said she had been “saddened” by the fall-out from the controversy around Prince Andrew and his links with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

“I have been saddened principally for Her Majesty the Queen, and that she’s having to deal with this issue,” she said.

I think it’s right that Prince Andrew has decided to step aside from public life and allow the other royals to take on the burden because it was just becoming too big of a story for the royal family.

“I didn’t see the (BBC Newsnight) interview, I’m just reacting to what has been said since then and obviously picking up on the news items, but it certainly had become a furore and I think it was going to overtake the monarchy if something wasn’t done. I think the right decision was taken.”

With reporting by Órla Ryan 

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