Sinn Féin and DUP leaders clash at Tory conference

Michelle O’Neill says Northern Ireland ‘isn’t British’ during Manchester event

Sinn Féin Northern leader Michelle O’Neill clashed with the leader of the DUP over whether or not Northern Ireland was British at the Tory Conference. Video: BBC Northern Ireland

 

Sinn Féin Northern leader Michelle O’Neill has warned the British government against trying to “cobble together” a deal with the DUP on the Northern Ireland institutions.

Speaking alongside DUP leader Arlene Foster at the annual Champ Ulster Fry on the fringes of the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, Ms O’Neill said the British government had failed the peace process.

“The British Government should not think that they can cobble together a deal acceptable to the DUP and then shoe horn Sinn Féin into acquiescing to it. That will not happen. The shape of a deal is very clear. The two Governments know this. So do the DUP and the other parties,” she said.

Ms Foster said that, despite their differences, the DUP and Sinn Féin had made progress in their negotiations but that hurdles remained to be overcome, particularly over language and culture.

“I said several weeks ago that the Irish language was not a threat to the Union. That is absolutely the case. But if we are to build a society that can move forward sustainably then we must be able to demonstrate to one another that no one culture can have dominance over the other,” Ms Foster said.

Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire told the event that, if the two sides failed to agree a deal soon, the British government would have to intervene to set a budget for the North.

Not a distraction

Ms Foster insisted her party’s electoral pact with the Conservatives was “not a distraction” from the negotiations in Belfast.

The two party leaders clashed sharply after Ms O’Neill, in response to a question about Sinn Féin’s demand for an Irish language act, said that “the North isn’t British”.

Ms Foster responded that, although she did “not want to turn this into a row”, Northern Ireland was indeed British and that its identity was protected by the Belfast Agreement.

Ms O’Neill told The Irish Times later that she fully respected the principle of consent in the Agreement and was speaking about the need for parity of esteem between British and Irish citizens in Northern Ireland.

“What I was trying to say is that it’s not just British and maybe that’s not how it came across... It’s about how British people and Irish people live side by side and that’s one of the reasons at the heart of the political crisis,” she said.

Northern Ireland has been without a first and deputy first minister since January and a functioning executive since March. The institutions collapsed when the late Sinn Féin first minister Martin McGuinness resigned over the DUP’s handling of a botched renewable heat scheme.