The Brexit process should not be a barrier to restoring powersharing in Northern Ireland, the DUP leader has said.
Arlene Foster said devolved government could be restored despite the ongoing uncertainty around the UK’s departure from the European Union.
Mrs Foster called on Sinn Fein to get “serious” about restoring the institutions as she arrived for roundtable talks with the four other Stormont parties and the UK and Irish governments.
The latest bid to resurrect the administration comes two years after the last Democratic Unionist/Sinn Fein-led coalition imploded amid a row over a botched green energy scheme.
The wrangle over the renewable heat incentive (RHI) was soon overtaken by disputes over the Irish language, the region’s ban on same sex marriage and the toxic legacy of the Troubles.
A number of attempts to find a negotiated deal to restore the institutions have ended in failure.
Many believe the prospects of an imminent return to powersharing are bleak, with the crisis seemingly in drift as political attention focuses on Brexit.
Mrs Foster said that did not need to be the case.
“I don’t think Brexit should prevent us from having a government in Northern Ireland,” she said.
“I wish that we had had a government up and running since March 2017, that’s when we should have been back into government, instead, because Sinn Fein has refused to go back in, we have to deal with that.”
The DUP leader expressed hope that there would be a Brexit deal before March 29.
“We want to see a deal in relation to Brexit because we believe a deal that works for the whole United Kingdom and one that deals for the European Union is good for everybody,” she said.
With the UK Government reluctant to reintroduce direct rule from Westminster, Northern Ireland has operated in a political limbo land for two years, with senior civil servants being left to run public services.
Those civil servants are seriously hamstrung, with ongoing uncertainty over what decisions they are able to make in the absence of elected ministers.
As a consequence, numerous governmental decisions are in abeyance with many major policy initiatives in cold storage.
“We need devolution back in Northern Ireland,” said Mrs Foster as she arrived at Stormont House for the meeting.
“It should have been back in after March 2017, after that election.
“It didn’t and it’s a source of great frustration at this point, not just for us but for the whole population of Northern Ireland, that we are still talking about talks rather than actually dealing with government issues.”
Mrs Foster repeated her claim that Sinn Fein was holding the process to “ransom”.
She reiterated that her party would go back into devolved government immediately, insisting the outstanding political disputes could be resolved in parallel.
Ahead of the talks, Sinn Fein branded the engagement a “sham”.
On Thursday evening, Sinn Fein negotiator Conor Murphy said: “There is no indication that the DUP or the British government are serious about resolving the outstanding issues and removing the obstacles to power-sharing.
“This is not a serious or credible attempt to restore the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.”
On Friday, Mrs Foster criticised Mr Murphy’s remarks.
“That’s very disappointing to hear Sinn Fein put out their stall like that,” she said.
“I think most people in Northern Ireland want to see us getting back in to deal with all the issues that affect them in their everyday lives, instead of dealing with very narrow sectional issues.
“Sinn Fein have held Northern Ireland to ransom these past two years, I deeply regret that.”