Arlene Foster: Kenny’s Brexit forum plan ‘badly mishandled’
Northern Ireland First Minister feels Taoiseach was bouncing her into supporting his idea
Northern Ireland First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster says she has “huge sympathy” for the way in which the owners of the Belfast bakers, Ashers, have “been dragged through the courts system” for refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA
Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster likes Taoiseach Enda Kenny and appreciates how he has regularly come to Enniskillen on Remembrance Sunday – to commemorate the 1987 IRA bombing in the Fermanagh town in which 11 people were killed and more than 60 injured.
But just ahead of her first Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) annual conference on Saturday, as party leader and First Minister, she says she does not like the way he – she feels – tried to bounce her into supporting his all-island civic forum on Brexit.
Recalling how the Taoiseach had made his proposal – just before a North South Ministerial Council meeting in Dublin, in July – Foster says: “It was very badly mishandled. We weren’t aware of his decision to set this forum up until I arrived in Dublin. I made it very clear that I was not going to be a part of it.”
She is in assertive, confident form ahead of the annual DUP jamboree.
She is flying through a series of individual media interviews and, due to the short time slot, questions have to be snappy and direct, as are most of her answers.
“It will lead to a lot of people making a lot of noise,” she says, emphasising her dismissal of the forum and of the “Remoaners”.
“Unfortunately, it won’t get a handle on Brexit, it will just be a case of grandstanding, consisting probably of a lot of people who haven’t actually accepted that the referendum has happened and the result is what it is.
“There is a much more positive and efficient way of doing business and that is engaging directly with those people who are making the decisions.
“I will continue to do that through the formal structures of the North South Ministerial Council, but also through informal contacts as well.”
Still, sitting in her office at Stormont Castle, she says she has good time for the Taoiseach.
“I get on very well with him and I have welcomed him to Enniskillen during Remembrance Sundays and I hope to do so again this Remembrance Sunday.”
As for how Brexit ultimately will unfold, Foster appears to be as wise as the next man or woman or politician.
Which brings up a seemingly irresolvable issue: how can the pro-Leave position of the DUP square with the pro-Remain stance of her partners in the Northern Executive, Sinn Féin and Martin McGuinness?
“We are heading into negotiations and it will be a long and complex process. What is important for us is that we are very much involved in the centre of those negotiations. What we are doing at the moment is presenting to the British government what is best for the people of Northern Ireland. ”
She will not enter into the debate about calls for Northern Ireland to have some, not quite defined, “special status” within Brexit.
And she believes that, despite all the negativity surrounding the Brexit vote, “If you look at all of the data since the referendum there is none of it that has come close to the doom-laden prophecies that were given to us before the referendum.
“And that is because business gets on and deals with the reality of the situation . . . Business people are very pragmatic.”
She is conscious of the concerns south of the Border.
“What is good for the Republic of Ireland is that they have an open relationship with the United Kingdom and that is what we want to see happening.”
She has no concerns that Brexit could upset the delicate constitutional balance between nationalism and unionism, created by the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
“The most outrageous commentary I have heard is that it is going to have a hugely detrimental impact on the peace process . . . We are getting on with the business of governing Northern Ireland, frankly.”
On Saturday, Foster will deliver her first keynote address as Northern Ireland’s First Minister and DUP leader to her party’s annual conference in the La Mon Hotel on the outskirts of east Belfast.
It’s a party well pleased with itself and with its leader.
Likely to be on parade is Limavady councillor Aaron Callan who, with nice timing, defected to the DUP from the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) this week, just a few days after Mike Nesbittt and the UUP held their annual conference.
“I have felt uncomfortable within the UUP, and its leader, for some time now given its drift further from what I believe are unionist values and principles,” said Callan, justifying his desertion.
The UUP’s response was revealingly terse: “We have built our success in recent years on teamwork. On that basis, councillor Callan is unlikely to be missed.”
Sometimes internecine rivalry is more intense than the unionist-nationalist struggle. But it is the sort of thing that greatly cheers DUP members, especially at conference time.
“People are joining with us across Northern Ireland. He is not the first and he will not be the last,” says Foster.
It is hard to believe that it has been just ten months since she was declared Northern Ireland’s First Minister and just 11 months since she took over the leadership of the DUP from Peter Robinson.
A lot has happened since: the Brexit vote and the Northern Ireland Assembly elections that brought the DUP 38 Assembly seats.
Notwithstanding their differences, Foster has struck up an easy and warm working relationship with her partners in government – remarkable, really, considering that the IRA almost killed both her father and her in separate attacks in her native Fermanagh.
Before the conference she is not going to emphasise the nature of that relationship.
“We get on and we do the work,” she says. She doesn’t mind the “Marlene” depiction of herself and the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
“I could be called a lot worse,” she says.
Foster appears smugly satisfied that the UUP and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) did not take up ministries in the Northern Executive after the May Assembly elections and that the Alliance Party declined the offer of the justice portfolio, which went to Independent unionist Claire Sugden.
“When we had a five-party Executive, we had a lot of internal opposition. We don’t have that anymore so it allows us to have frank and open discussions at the Executive table and know that it is not going to be leaked,” she says, crisply.
‘Attack on democracy’
The year has also seen the Easter 1916 commemorations. She believes they were handled with “maturity” but still holds to her position that the Rising was “an attack on democracy”.
She doesn’t, however, believe the Larne loyalist anti-Home Rule gun-running of 1914 was an attack on democracy “when we in Northern Ireland, in what became Northern Ireland, were going to be faced with going into an all-Ireland state which we were fundamentally opposed to”.
“There was gun-running that took place at that time, as I understand it, to defend Northern Ireland so I don’t think it was an attack on democracy.”
On social issues, Foster says she has “huge sympathy” for the way in which the owners of the Belfast bakers, Ashers, have “been dragged through the courts system” for refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding.
The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, which financially supported Gareth Lee in his case against Ashers Baking Company and the owners, the McArthurs, has adopted a “metropolitan liberal elite definition” of equality.
“We are hugely disappointed with the way in which the equality commission has behaved in terms of the faith community in Northern Ireland,” Foster says. “I think it is very troubling and they need to take a long, hard look at themselves.”
It is a view that the head of the commission – Dr Michael Wardlow – already has rejected, saying his organisation supports people “whether they are with faith or without faith”.
Foster says she feels no antipathy towards the LGBT community but makes plain that the party’s opposition to same-sex marriage is unlikely to change anytime soon.
She says the DUP will, if necessary, continue to use its strength in the Assembly to veto any future Assembly votes on the matter because “we are opposed to the redefinition of marriage”.
That position is reinforced by what, she says, has been a torrent of “vicious abuse” directed at her and her DUP colleagues by some of those campaigning for same-sex marriage:
“They are not going to influence me by sending me abuse; in fact they are going to send me in the opposite direction. People need to reflect on that.”
Foster says she and her party will soon consider a report by a working group on whether abortion should be permitted in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.
“We are very much a pro-life party,” she says.
Foster doesn’t accept abortion is just a woman’s issue or simply about choice: “I hear that all the time, that this is a woman’s issue, the right to choose, and this is a woman’s issue in terms of their bodies and what have you. But there is also a big issue for men as well because they have a role to play in all of this. I think it is quite insulting for people to say this is just an issue for women.
“It is not. It is an issue for women and it is an issue for the life of the unborn child, and it is an issue for the father of the child as well. To say otherwise would just be wrong.”
With her minders tapping watches there is just enough time for a couple of quick questions.
For instance, how does she balance home and political life? She laughs and says: “You know, I think this is hilarious – none of my male colleagues are asked this question.”
But she answers: she copes just fine with a range of supports.
As for how she relaxes: “I relax by going home to Fermanagh for sanity.”