Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster has made a strong conciliatory gesture towards the Irish Government on Brexit by saying it is not in Northern Ireland's interest if the Republic does not prosper.
In a major speech delivered at the inaugural Killarney Economic Conference in partnership with The Irish Times on Saturday morning, Ms Foster emphasised the close ties between the two states.
The speech will be received as a placatory move by Ms Foster to draw a line under the row that erupted before Christmas over Border issues after Brexit. A series of acrimonious comments from both sides severely strained relationships between the Government and the DUP.
Ms Foster defended her party’s support for Brexit, but said she fully understood the concerns of the Irish Government and people.
“I appreciate that nowhere will be more impacted by the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union than Ireland.”
Later, however, Ms Foster dismissed suggestions that a second referendum on Brexit should be held.
Ms Foster said that if a referendum was held to give the public another say on the question of exiting the EU, the process would be endless, with demands for further referendums.
“You would have a never-ending cycle of referendums,” she said, during a questions and answers session after her speech.
Ms Foster said the reason the UK voted to leave the EU was that people wanted to reject elitism. She pointed out that the DUP was always opposed to the EU.
“To be clear, my party was never in favour of the EU. Right from the beginning, we campaigned against it.
“The proper single market for us is the UK,” she said.
Speaking at the conference, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin acknowledged Ms Foster’s speech had struck a conciliatory tone. He said he accepted she has been consistent in the need to restore the Northern executive and the assembly, both of which had been suspended since January 2017.
“In terms of Brexit, the focus needs to be on very practical and constructive engagement to mitigate the damage Brexit will do to jobs, North and South, and East and West.”
He said he also agreed with her that less “megaphone diplomacy was needed” by parties involved in the Brexit process.
In her address, Ms Foster acknowledged the shared links between both communities, as she drew on her own childhood in Co Fermanagh.
“I grew up only a few miles from the Fermanagh and Monaghan border. I saw for myself growing up how, even during our darkest days, we shared close economic, cultural and social ties across the Border. My own grandmother used to travel back and forward across the Border on a bicycle to sell Irish lace in Clones.
“Those ties have strengthened since the Troubles ended to the extent that in recent times we have enjoyed an extraordinarily, unimaginably positive relations between our two states,” she said.
Ms Foster said she did not want to lose any of those gains as the progress was “hard won”. She said she can still retain her sense of unionism while being proud of the cancer centre at Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry, which treated patients from both sides of the Border.
She argued that, although Brexit would present challenges, it did not mean that all such progress would be undone.
She likened Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to “semi-detached houses” that look the same on the outside but are very different inside. However, both remained connected.
“Success for one of us is success for the other. As we chart a new course for the future, it is not in our interests to see the Republic of Ireland do anything other than prosper,” she said.
“We will continue to have our own identities and for our part we will no longer be members of the European Union, but our futures will still be closely connected.”
Ms Foster also restated her view that Brexit could present new opportunities that would mutually benefit both states.
“Brexit is not about pulling up the drawbridge, building a wall and cutting ourselves off from our nearest neighbours.
“We must all recognise that change is coming as a result of the referendum. It is our job as politicians to help shape that change but to do so in a way that ensures that those economic, cultural and social ties that have endured through difficult times and have thrived through better ones continue into the future.”
She also rejected the view put by the DUP’s opponents that the party was blasé about the concerns of others and was indifferent to the consequences.
“That simply isn’t true. We believe there are new longer-term opportunities as well as short-term challenges from the UK’s departure from the European Union.”
Common Travel Area
Ms Foster said she wanted the Common Travel Area to remain and the Border to remain open.
She said thousands crossed the Border every day.
“I absolutely do not want to see the creation of a hard border on the island of Ireland.
“We value the trade that has developed at pace between North and South.”
However, Ms Foster emphasised several times during the debate that the referendum had been decided and would not be revisited.
She pointed to the fact that exports to Britain were almost four times more valuable than those to the Republic.
“For that reason, we objected to draft one of the text [for phase one of talks]. We could not countenance anything that created a Border down the Irish sea and cut Northern Ireland business off from their market
“The final text is a considerable improvement,” she said as it gave Norther Ireland “unfettered access to the whole of the UK market”.
Ms Foster argued the British Irish Council provided the infrastructure that would allow both Northern Ireland and the Republic continue working together. She said she intended to discuss how to future-proof the council with the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley and Tánaiste Simon Coveney.