Assembly election: DUP MP says up to Foster to accept Sinn Fin ultimatum – BBC News

Image caption The DUP MP Gavin Robinson said any decision would be up to Arlene Foster to make for herself

The DUP MP Gavin Robinson has said the party is not ruling out an ultimatum from Sinn Fin for the DUP leader Arlene Foster to step aside temporarily but said it would be her decision.

Sinn Fin reiterated on Saturday that it would not go back into government with Mrs Foster as first minister until her role in a botched heating scheme was “cleared up”.

Political talks will begin on Monday.

Mrs Foster set up the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme in 2012.

It was designed to encourage businesses to switch from fossil fuels to more environmentally friendly energy sources. But subsidies were overly generous and initially there was no cap on the payments.

It later emerged the scheme was expected to cost the Northern Ireland tax payer 490m.

Deputy First Minster Martin McGuinness, from Sinn Fin, resigned from his post in January after Mrs Foster rejected his calls for her to temporarily stand aside as first minister while an investigation into the scheme is carried out.

‘Difficult election’

His decision to quit led to a snap election which saw Sinn Fin increase its vote, cutting the DUP’s lead to one seat.

Mr Robinson told BBC 5Live’s Stephen Nolan show: “I’m not ruling it out on the basis that if it was a decision for Arlene to take and one she made herself then the party would discuss that and consider it.”

He added that it had been a “difficult election” and a “bad day for unionism”.

Image caption Gerry Adams said the party’s call for Mrs Foster to step aside during an investigation was “not a precondition” to Sinn Fin entering talks with the DUP

Mr Adams hailed the election result as a “watershed” moment but said Sinn Fin was making contact with all party leaders to discuss the return of power-sharing.

He said the party’s call for Mrs Foster to step aside during an investigation was “not a precondition” to Sinn Fin entering talks with the DUP.

‘Preliminary report’

Under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday agreement, unionists and nationalists must agree to share power for devolved government to function.

“We have never said that Arlene Foster has to step aside before negotiations happen. Arlene Foster is the leader of the DUP and we accept that absolutely,” Mr Adams told reporters.

“The first position that we put to them [the DUP] was that Arlene Foster should stand aside until there was a preliminary report.

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Image caption DUP leader Arlene Foster said she was pleased the DUP remained the largest party, despite its seat losses

“We’re now being told that there’s not going to be a preliminary report – where all this comes from, none of us know, the inquiry hasn’t set out its mode of operation.”

Mr Adams said the inquiry team “might decide that it could bring forward a preliminary report” or deal with the issues “in modular form”, but added the inquiry could also take up to a year.

‘Straightforward’

He pointed to Mrs Foster’s predecessor Peter Robinson, who stepped aside twice until to allow preliminary inquiries into allegations against him.

“Our position is very, very straightforward. We will not be consenting to Arlene Foster being the first minister until this issue is cleared up,” the Sinn Fin president said.

There is now a three-week deadline for unionists and nationalists to form a power-sharing government.

The Sinn Fin delegation will be led into talks on Monday by its northern leader, Michelle O’Neill.

Image caption The nationalist SDLP also overtook the Ulster Unionist Party for the first time, meaning Stormont no longer has a unionist majority

She said: “The task is not easy, but it is achievable if people come at it with the right attitude.”

The nationalist SDLP also overtook the Ulster Unionist Party for the first time, meaning Stormont no longer has a unionist majority.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt announced he was stepping down as a result of his party’s disappointing performance.

If a government cannot be formed within the next three weeks, under law, another election will be called.

Ultimately, if no power-sharing government is formed, devolved power could return to the UK parliament at Westminster for the first time in a decade.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire said the election had demonstrated the desire by the overwhelming majority of voters for inclusive, devolved government.

“Everyone now has a shared responsibility to engage intensively in the short period of time that is available to us, to ensure that a strong and stable administration is established,” he said.

The BBC News NI website will carry all the latest on the election throughout the weekend.

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