Foster bows out as first minister with plea for mutual respect

Tributes paid to ousted DUP leader, who resists urge to dole out retribution in speech

Former first minister Arlene Foster leaving Stormont Castle in Belfast. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye

Former first minister Arlene Foster leaving Stormont Castle in Belfast. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye

 

Former DUP leader Arlene Foster called on members of the Northern Ireland Assembly to be “good neighbours” and to respect each other’s identities as she resigned as first minister on Monday.

“Let us realise in every corner of this House, that people live here who have an Irish identity, a British identity, some have a British and Irish identity, some are British and Northern Irish and there are new emerging identities, but for all of us this place is called home,” Ms Foster said during her resignation speech.

“We can poke each other in the eye and have a competition of ‘my identity is better than yours’, but it is only by respecting each other’s identity that we will move forward.

“The beauty of the union is that we can all have our identities and live here side by side,” she said.

In the future, she said, she would continue to “speak up on behalf of women in public life, as well as our children, by seeking better protections for everyone on social media.”

Ms Foster stood down as DUP leader last month after more than 75 per cent of her party’s MLAs and MPs signed a letter of no confidence in her leadership. The move led to an acrimonious split in the party and a battle for the top spot, which was narrowly won by Lagan Valley MLA Edwin Poots.

He intends to nominate his constituency colleague, Paul Givan, as first minister. Sinn Féin must re-nominate the deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill in a process that must be completed by June 21st but that could threaten the stability of the Assembly.

Golden Cleric

In a nod to her ousting as DUP leader, Ms Foster said a “former member of this House said to me last week that my closing speech should be in the style of Fr Ted Crilly whenever he received the Golden Cleric award, but after a moment of reflection, I thought, perhaps not.”

Mr Poots, who stared straight ahead while Ms Foster delivered her speech, later said he had believed “history will be very kind to Arlene”, adding that she had “done a considerable course of work in ensuring that we move forward”.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie told Ms Foster that “even when that ‘Et tu, Brute’ moment came from those who you would have called your friends, I think you held yourself with incredible dignity”.

“If there is something I will reflect on in the months and years ahead, is just how our first minister went through this crisis and many other crises before holding your head up high, and you should be proud.”

Tributes were also paid to Ms Foster in the Assembly from across the political divide, with the Speaker, Sinn Féin’s Alex Maskey, praising her role in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic, which he said would be remembered “in a positive manner”.

Ms O’Neill also wished her well and referred to their joint efforts to tackle misogyny in society and the Covid-19 pandemic.

But the Sinn Féin deputy first minister also delivered a warning to the new DUP leader, saying that leadership meant “delivering a powersharing that’s grounded in fairness and inclusion ... I hope that we have willing partners in which to do so also because you can’t build powersharing on broken promises.”

In her final speech, Ms Foster called on the parties to move forward with the implementation of the language and cultural package agreed as part of the New Decade, New Approach deal that restored Stormont in January 2020.