'Northern Ireland is British and British it will remain' - Arlene Foster tells DUP conference Union 'is secure'
Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster has warned Sinn Fein to "get serious" about the terms of a deal to restore Stormont powersharing, accusing republicans of using rights issues as a cloak to break unionism.
Mrs Foster told her party conference in Belfast she was committed to resurrecting devolution, eleven months on from its collapse, but she insisted any agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein had to be balanced.
The former Stormont first minister got a rousing reception from Union flag-waving party faithful at the DUP's first conference since it became political kingmakers at Westminster.
She used her speech to restate her party's determination to see powersharing restored, insisting the party blocking its return was Sinn Fein.
"It's time Sinn Fein got serious," she said.
"This party will conclude a balanced deal but we will not be party to a one-sided arrangement that rewards intransigent behaviour.
"Northern Ireland needs a government and we cannot continue without ministers.
"Time is short and those in Sinn Fein blocking the restoration of local decision-making need to decide whether they want to do business with us or have direct rule ministers in place.
"I still believe that devolution is the best way to govern Northern Ireland but to do that in a way that delivers for all of our people we need serious partners in government."
Significant issues still stand in the way of a deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein that would see them return as coalition partners in a devolved executive.
A return to Westminster direct rule looks a more likely prospect at present.
One of the key sticking points is a Sinn Fein demand for a stand-alone piece of legislation to protect Irish language speakers in the region.
The DUP will countenance such laws, but only as part of a wider Act that also protects British culture in Northern Ireland.
"The Irish language is spoken and enjoyed by thousands of people in all parts of Northern Ireland," said Mrs Foster.
"It does no damage to our unionism or the Union we cherish.
"I respect the Irish language and those who speak it.
"However, respect isn't a one-way street. Respect works both ways.
"It is time that Sinn Fein started to respect our British culture.
"For too long they have shown nothing but disdain and disrespect for the national flag, the royal family, the armed forces, British symbols, the constitutional reality and the very name of this country.
"So we are up for respect. And we're up for rights. Republicans like to lecture us about rights. They're fond of rights now. They weren't so concerned about that most fundamental of rights - the right to life - during the Troubles.
"We are for rights. We respect rights. What we oppose is using the cloak of rights as a Trojan horse designed to break unionists."
During the address, Mrs Foster reflected on a rollercoaster year for her and her party.
From facing down intense calls to quit amid a furore about a botched green energy scheme to standing on the steps of Downing Street with the fate of Theresa May's minority government in her hands, 2017 will not be one Mrs Foster forgets in a hurry.
"If the last year has proved anything it is that we live in an uncertain world," she said.
"We've been through a lot together over these past 12 months."
Despite the triumphant mood at the DUP conference, the event comes at a time of major challenges for the party at home and further afield.
The powersharing impasse, triggered in January over the botched green energy scheme, has left Northern Ireland without a voice in Brexit negotiations at a time when crucial decisions about the future of the Irish border are due to be made.
Relations between the DUP and Irish government have deteriorated in recent months as the former has responded angrily to Dublin's insistence that Northern Ireland should continue to comply with an EU customs framework when the rest of the UK exits the single market and customs union.
The DUP insists that Northern Ireland must be treated the same as the rest of the UK.
The matter will come to a head in the days and weeks before December's crucial EU summit in Brussels, when the remaining 27 member states will decide whether enough clarity has been achieved on the border issues to progress Brexit talks to the next stage.
If the UK government was to give any ground on Dublin and Brussels's preferred plan for avoiding a hard border, it would undoubtedly put serious strain on the DUP's confidence and supply deal with Mrs May.
Mrs Foster told delegates: "We want a sensible Brexit. A Brexit that works for Northern Ireland and for the United Kingdom.
"However, we will not support any arrangements that create barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom or any suggestion that Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of the UK, will have to mirror European regulations."
The confidence and supply agreement, which was signed in exchange for a Tory promise of an extra £1 billion of spending in Northern Ireland, enabled the Prime Minister to retain power after June's poor showing in the general election.
The deal, which sees the DUP's 10 MPs support the Government on crucial votes, was front and centre of proceedings at Saturday's conference.
The front of party conference literature was adorned with a picture of a smiling Mrs Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds outside No 10.
One of the loudest cheers of the speech came when Mrs Foster rejected any suggestion Northern Ireland's place within the UK was now at risk.
"I am a unionist by conviction and unashamedly so," she said.
"I believe that the Union is the best basis upon which we can build a peaceful and prosperous society in Northern Ireland.
"Regardless of some of the propaganda, the truth is the Union is secure and no matter how many times we are told that "the North isn't British", Northern Ireland is British and British it will remain."