LONDON (Reuters) - The leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Arlene Foster, said on Thursday she saw little chance of a return to devolved government in the British province in the coming weeks or months.
The province has been without a devolved executive for over a year since Irish nationalists Sinn Fein withdrew from the compulsory power-sharing government with the DUP, their arch-rivals. The executive is central to a 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of violence.
“For this past 13 months we have been unable to form a devolved government. I really regret that,” Foster said in a speech to the British Chambers of Commerce in London. “Given everything that happened over the past couple of weeks, I see little prospect of it being returned in the coming weeks or months.”
Foster, whose party supports Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government, added that she was disappointed that a return to violence in Northern Ireland had been raised in Brexit talks by those with little knowledge of the region.
Arrangements for the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are one of the thorniest issues of Brexit talks. Britain’s government has said it does not want a customs union with the EU, without which the EU says it would need to regulate Northern Ireland’s trade to avoid a return of customs checks.
A hard border is opposed by Britain and Ireland, and Northern Irish political parties, and some Irish nationalists would see physical border infrastructure as an unwelcome symbol of British rule over Northern Ireland.
Some supporters of Britain remaining in a close trading relationship with the European Union have raised the spectre of a return to armed conflict between British loyalists and those seeking a united Ireland if there is a hard border after Brexit.
“I do object in the strongest terms to people who have limited experience of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland throwing threats of violence around as some kind of bargaining chip in the negotiating process,” Foster said. “To do so is an insult to the people of Northern Ireland.”
She said the EU draft proposals to protect the open border in Ireland that would in effect keep the British province in a customs union with the bloc was an “act of bad faith.”
“The Commission’s draft text is entirely unacceptable and actually represents an act of bad faith on the part of Brussels towards addressing the challenges facing the border in a fair and sensible fashion,” she said.
Reporting by David Milliken and Andrew MacAskill; editing by Stephen Addison