Talks to revive the Stormont Executive have hit a stalemate after less than a day as DUP leader Arlene Foster resisted demands by Sinn Fein for her to step aside First Minister.
Sinn Fein has long insisted it will not support the nomination of Foster as First Minister while investigations get under way into a 500 million pound financial scandal in which she is directly implicated.
There are allegations of abuse and corruption in Ms Foster’s handling of the the runaway ‘green energy’ scheme known as the Renewable Heat Initiative, which culminated in the collapse of the previous administration. An inquiry into its operation is not expected to make any findings for at least six months.
The parties have three weeks to form a new power-sharing government to avoid the prospect of a third election in less than a year, or more controversially, the reimposition of full Direct Rule from London.
Sinn Fein has indicated it could back another DUP nominee for the position temporarily while Ms Foster stays on as party leader. Ms Foster’s approach is unchanged, however.
“That is not the only red line they have put up before negotiations,” she said. “I think it is a foolish thing to do.”
She insisted her party’s performance in last week’s Six County Assembly election had been good, despite the DUP losing ten seats in the 90-seat chamber, and cutting their lead over Sinn Fein from nine seats to a single seat. She pointed to a numerical increase in votes amid a sharply higher turnout.
“Our vote was up in every single constituency,” she said. “I think that is a pretty good basis on which to continue as DUP leader.”
Ms Foster insisted there was no pressure to step down from within her own party after its electoral collapse, and that she was not seeking to rerun the election. Asked about feelings within her party Ms Foster said: “There is no revolt.”
Sinn Fein’s Northern leader Michelle O’Neill said her party’s position was also unchanged.
“Arlene Foster’s position is a matter for herself. Our position is on the record and very clear in relation to what we think needs to happen,” she said.
It is understood British Direct Ruler Brokenshire is meeting all five main party leaders “on a bilateral basis” ahead of talks including Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan on Wednesday.
On Sunday, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams criticised the Tory government in London, saying it is “part of the problem” of the political crisis in the north of Ireland.
Mr Adams said British PM Theresa May was seeking to impose Brexit on the north of Ireland and had refused to implement agreements on the legacy of the conflict. He also said his party had no confidence in Mr Brokenshire to chair post-election negotiations, but said his party was seeking to “engage positively with all the other parties” to find a way forward.
The following is the full text of his statement:
“Sinn Fein will be at Stormont tomorrow to engage positively with all the other parties. Following on from the election, I have called on everyone to reflect on how we find a way forward.
“That includes the two governments. I am disappointed by the commentary from London and Dublin over the weekend.
“The two governments seem to be in denial of the reality that while the RHI scandal precipitated the election, the political system has been brought to the point of collapse by the failure to respect and implement previous agreements. This failure includes both governments.
“The two governments have walked away from the role of co-equal guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. They have failed to uphold the equality obligations of the Good Friday and subsequent agreements and failed to ensure the implementation of an Irish Language act.
“It is little surprise that the DUP acted with arrogance and disrespect to the point of scandal on the watch of the two governments.
“The British government refuses to implement the agreements on legacy and has sought immunity for their soldiers and agents.
“They have set aside the concept of consent, and undermined human rights safeguards, in seeking to impose Brexit against the will of the majority of voters in the north.
“The British government has given up all pretence of independence. The Tory party stood in the recent election and was rejected again by the electorate receiving only 2,379 votes.
“They are not neutral arbitrators. They have refused to implement and honour their agreements and responsibilities. They are part of the problem.
“The Irish government needs to hold London to its responsibilities and obligations. The Taoiseach knows this. So does Minister Flanagan. That needs to be their focus in the coming talks.”