The former DUP leader Arlene Foster has resigned as Northern Ireland's First Minister.
In a resignation speech delivered at Stormont on Monday afternoon, Ms Foster called on Assembly members to be “good neighbours”.
She urged the North’s political parties to move forward with the implementation of the language and cultural package agreed as part of the New Decade, New Approach deal which restored Stormont in January 2020.
The DUP and Sinn Féin now have seven days to nominate a first and deputy first minister in order to avert a political crisis at Stormont.
However, there are increasing tensions between the parties over Irish language legislation and the timescale for its implementation.
Ms Foster said she intended to 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”.
Tributes were paid to Ms Foster in the Assembly from across the political divide, with the Speaker, Sinn Féin’s Alex Maskey, saying her role in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic would be remembered “in a positive manner.”
The new DUP leader Edwin Poots - who did not look at Ms Foster as she delivered her speech - said he believed “history will be very kind to Arlene” as she had “done a considerable course of work in ensuring that we move forward.”
Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie said 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,” he said.
Respect for identities
In her speech, Ms Foster called on Assembly members to respect each other's identities, saying that it was the only way for Northern Ireland to move forward.
“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,” she said.
“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.”
In a nod to her ousting as DUP leader, Ms Foster said that a “former member of this House said to me last week that my closing speech should be in the style of Father Ted Crilly whenever he received the Golden Cleric award, but after a moment of reflection I thought, perhaps not”.
On the Irish language, Ms Foster said that “too often a demand to advance Irish identity in the language of equality saw simultaneous calls to reduce or denigrate other forms of expression.
“This was always a destabilising approach in a society seeking healing, and risked simply creating a new dispossessed community. This cycle needed to be broken,” she said.
“This is why my team and I sought and secured a cultural package that would see a range of measures to advance identities and protect them for future generations.
“This is the only model for success - not one step forward for some and one step back for others.
“This will be the basis for sharing this place we all cherish and take pride in - and, yes, it also includes a Commissioner for the Irish language.”
In regard to the Northern Ireland protocol, she said that “sadly, broader politics in Northern Ireland between the UK and Ireland and the UK and EU” were “out of balance” and this imbalance had been created by the protocol.
“It is not a real partnership. An imbalance and an instability is built in that will fester and deteriorate,” she said. “If Brussels continues to think the protocol is enough, they are in denial.
“Imbalance and instability in the context of Northern Ireland is a truly dangerous cocktail. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and needs to be treated as such,” she said.
Sinn Féin’s Minister for Finance Conor Murphy called on Monday for intervention by the Irish and British governments, saying his party had told them they had “run out of road” and the DUP was “clearly not going to” bring forward the legislation in a timely fashion.
“It’s been disingenuous to say in public that they intend to do these at all haste and to expedite these matters when clearly they’re telling us in private that they have no intention of doing that,” he said.
A Sinn Féin source on Sunday briefed the media that the party’s position is that the nomination for first and deputy first minister “has to be accompanied by legislation on the Irish language”.
Mr Poots has said he is committed to implementing all aspects of the New Decade New Approach deal which restored Stormont in January 2020 - which includes Irish language legislation. However, he would not commit to doing so within the timeframe of the current Assembly, saying “time will tell” during an appearance on BBC Radio Ulster on Monday.
Setting pre-conditions to the nominations was, Mr Poots said, “not appropriate, it’s not respecting someone’s mandate, and we cannot be in a circumstance where we have pre-conditions set for the selection of our first minister
“I’m not setting pre-conditions to the selection of Sinn Féin’s deputy first minister,” he added.
He warned that if Sinn Féin did not nominate a deputy first minister it would put “our very peace at risk as a consequence of that action.”
Mr Maskey announced that the offices of first and deputy first minister must be filled by 1pm on Monday, June 21st. The Stormont Business Committee is due to meet on Tuesday to consider scheduling the necessary session for June 21st.
It can also be dealt with “at an earlier sitting if there is agreement”, Mr Maskey said, but added that he would not schedule this the parties indicated the vacancies could be successfully filled at that point.
Under Stormont rules governing the joint office, once Ms Foster ceased to hold office the deputy first minister, Michelle O’Neill, is also no longer in post, and there must be re-nominations to both posts.
If either party fails to make a nomination, an Executive cannot be formed and it falls to the Northern Secretary to call an election. The DUP MLA Paul Givan is Mr Poots’ choice as first minister.
Executive Office questions, which were scheduled to take place in the Assembly on Monday afternoon did not proceed as there was no minister in post to answer questions.
A meeting of the Executive on Thursday, when Covid-19 regulations and other issues are considered and decisions taken, will be also be unable to go ahead without a first and deputy first minister.
The Northern Secretary, Brandon Lewis, said it was “now essential that the transition to new leadership is as smooth as possible, and I have encouraged both the DUP and Sinn Fein to ensure that their nominations for First Minister and deputy First Minister are put forward in good time.
“The people of Northern Ireland need strong political leadership. It is paramount that there remains a functioning Executive that is able to work in the best interests of all the people and communities of Northern Ireland, delivering on the issues that matter to them most.
“Over the coming days I will remain resolutely committed to engaging with all the Northern Ireland parties and doing everything I can to ensure that a stable and functioning Executive continues to be in place.
“History has shown that political stability cannot be taken for granted and we all have a responsibility to protect it,” he said.