/Long read: Arlene Foster discusses Brexit, Irish unity, attending McGuinness funeral, RHI and gay marriage during landmark Late Late Show appearance

Long read: Arlene Foster discusses Brexit, Irish unity, attending McGuinness funeral, RHI and gay marriage during landmark Late Late Show appearance

As the United Kingdom officially left the European Union last night, Northern Ireland’s First Minister was still in it, choosing to mark the occasion in a TV studio in Dublin.

All eyes were on DUP leader Arlene Foster, whose party fought so vociferously in favour of Brexit, as she appeared as the star guest on RTE’s flagship Late Late Show as the minutes ticked away towards the historic departure.

Mrs Foster had said before hand that she agreed to it because “on the night the UK exits the EU, it’s important for me to speak to an Irish audience and emphasise that I want a good neighbourly relationship.”

It was a brave move with so many political factors blowing in the wind – the rekindling of a relationship with Sinn Fein to return to powersharing at Stormont barely weeks old and an election in the south a matter of days away.

But she was greeted with a respectful applause and a few cheers and smiled politely as she embraced host Ryan Tubridy who asked her what she made of people expressing surprise at her appearing on the show.

She said: “First of all we are leaving the European Union tonight, the United Kingdom leaves, but that doesn’t mean we’re not still neighbours and I wanted to send a message that we are and will continue to be neighbours and I felt the most easy way to do that was to come here and to be on your show.”

She said she watched the Late Late Show when she was younger and told Ryan she was a Johnny Logan fan, and when Tubridy asked “and to say what to the people of the Republic of Ireland?” she replied: “Well to say that whilst we are leaving the institutions of the European Union, we are not leaving Europe and we’re certainly not leaving the island of Ireland, that we’ll continue to have those neighbourly relationships and of course as today is Brexit night, we have the transition period to go through now and there’s much to do during that transition period.”

Tubridy then asked if she felt comfortable being in the Republic of Ireland or if it was a peculiar place to be.

She responded: “It’s very comfortable and I’ve been made very welcome and I have to say it’s not just of course the Republic of Ireland because there are many people as you know that watch this show in Northern Ireland, and hello to my sister in Nottingham in England who is watching the show as well, people all over the United Kingdom watch this show.”

She joked that her sister told her she “nearly fell off the settee” when she found out that she would be on the programme.

Tubridy raised the issue of anxiety over Brexit, including farmers and fishermen, to which she said: “I acknowledged that today, I was asked earlier on today how I felt about today and I said well obviously I was pleased that we were leaving the European Union, however I was concerned also about the fact that we are not leaving on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom, there are still issues to be dealt with in relation to Northern Ireland, for example the trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

“And I said I also understood very much the anxiety of people who wanted to remain in the European Union institutions and many people who had anxieties.

“I think the first thing is to acknowledge them because I think the Brexit debate has been very polarising, not just in Northern Ireland but right across the United Kingdom so the first thing to do is not to be triumphalist and actually to acknowledge that people don’t want this to happen, I do acknowledge that.

“But secondly then to work with colleagues in the newly formed Northern Ireland Executive to make sure that we find a common ground between us all and that we work together to do that.”

Executive ministers Peter Weir, Deirdre Hargey, Gordon Lyons, Nichola Mallon, Edwin Poots, Arlene Foster, Naomi Long, Michelle O’Neill, Conor Murphy, Robin Swann, Declan Kearney and Diane Dodds at Greenmount Agricultural College, where they held a special meeting

Mrs Foster also explained how she lived close to the border growing up and told how her father survived an IRA attempt to take his life, as well as she herself escaped death when her school bus was attacked by a Provo bomb and explained how her family were forced to leave their home.

Tubridy then asked Mrs Foster to characterise her relationship with former Deputy First Minister and ex-IRA man Martin McGuinness.

She said: “Well, we had worked together for quite a while, as you know the powersharing institutions came back in 2007 and Martin was the Deputy First Minister then with Ian Paisley, I was fortunate enough to be appointed a minister in that administration as well. So I’ve been a minister in that executive for all those years when he was Deputy First Minister.”

Tubridy asked: “Did you like him?”

Mrs Foster replied: “I got on quite well with Martin, yes, and you may say that’s very strange given his background and given my background but I think we have to make choices and, to me, reconciliation actually starts with the individual.

“Yes as leaders we have to show that we want to move forward and do things differently for our children and to give them hope, but reconciliation has to start with the person as well, so I had to see beyond what he had done in the past and I’m sure he had to look beyond who I was as well as a strong unionist.”

Tubridy asked Mrs Foster to explain a “personal problem” she might have had with Martin McGunness over a funeral oration he gave and asked her to explain why it might have been an issue for her.

She said: “Well, he gave the oration at Seamus McIlwaine’s funeral and it’s widely believed that he was at the attempted murder of my father so that, of course, was very difficult to take in that he would say that this was a man that should be admired.

“He went on to kill a lot of people in south Fermanagh, he was very young at the attempt on my father, I think he was only about 17 years of age.”

When Tubridy suggested her relationship with Martin McGuinness would be coloured by this, Mrs Foster countered: “I don’t think it was coloured by that because I genuinely feel that I can stay in the past and think about the past and dwell in the past, and let me say this, I don’t take away for a moment what people have been through, and as I’ve said to you I’ve been very fortunate because whilst my father was attacked and whilst I was on a bus that was blown up, I survived and I’m here today and I’m here to tell the tale whereas others aren’t.”

Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster (PA)

As the clock ticked past 11 to mark the official process of Brexit’s beginning, Tubridy asked Mrs Foster how she was feeling.

She replied: “Well as I said earlier on I am pleased that the UK has respected the vote that was taken right across the nation but I can understand that there are many people who will not be celebrating tonight because they feel sad about that.”

Tubridy said he noted that Mrs Foster seemed to be avoiding any sense of celebration or triumphalism, to which Mrs Foster agreed.

She said: “I think that is right because we have been there for 47 years. I think there’s a lot of people who will be sad about it tonight but you have to understand that when the referendum was called, it was called because reforms weren’t granted to David Cameron, reforms he was looking for in terms of monetary union, in terms of fiscal policies, in terms of sovereignty.

“Those weren’t given and therefore it went to the people and I think people voted to leave the European Union because they felt disconnected from the institutions and that’s why they felt they wanted to leave.”

Tubridy asked the audience if they were sad over Brexit, to which they agreed, and then asked Mrs Foster what kind of neighbours the Republic were now that it was past 11 o’clock.

She smiled: “Well the same as we were before 11 o’clock, Ryan! It is because of course, the communities that live along the border will still be the communities that live along the border.

“They still have those relationships that happen. I mean I, for example, in Fermanagh work very closely with a group in County Leitrim.

“We’re trying to get a greenway in place from Sligo to Enniskillen, I think that that’s a very good thing to do because that will provide a cycle route and tourism.”

On Northern Ireland having a different Brexit from the rest of the UK, she said: “That’s something that we have to deal with in the next 11 months.

“Michelle O’Neill and I were in Cardiff this week talking to our counterparts from Scotland and from Wales and from the Westminster government about what that would actually mean for us.”

Theresa May’s minority government was propped up by Arlene Foster’s DUP following the 2017 election (PA)

Challenging Mrs Foster, Tubridy argued that Brexit meant a weakening of the union, but she dismissed the suggestion.

She said: ” No it’s not a weakening of the union because we are still in the United Kingdom’s custom code, I think that was the difference if you like between Theresa May’s deal and Boris Johnson’s deal but there are those regulatory differences and that’s where the issue will come.”

The host asked: “But the fact that it’s a border you didn’t want must rankle a bit for you?”

She replied: “Well of course it rankles. I didn’t want a border put in place and this is something I must deal with because what we didn’t want to see was borders developed north-south but we certainly didn’t want them east-west which is actually internal inside our own nation, which is wrong as well.”

She said she did not accept that as a failure by her or the DUP and explained: “No, I think there’s much work to do in relation to how we deal with that now.

“Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, says emphatically there won’t be any checks and then I listen to Michel Barnier who says something very different so there’s a lot of work to do in all of that.”

Tubridy then asked: “Do you believe Boris Johnson any more?”

Mrs Foster drew laughter from the audience and laughed herself as she said: “Well, he’s the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom so we have to work with him because he has a mandate.

“Well, do you know what? I believe in myself and I have faith in myself so we’ll have to make our own judgements as to what he does.”

Upping the ante, Tubridy asked: “Do you believe you were shafted by Boris Johnson?”

She smiled: “Well I wouldn’t use that terminology, Ryan, but I do think it was hugely disappointing that he decided to go down that particular route, but look, we have to deal with that now.

“I mean, we didn’t ask for that but we have to deal with that and that’s what we want to do.”

Boris Johnson, Michelle O’Neill, Arlene Foster and Julian Smith (Liam McBurney/PA)

Asked by Tubridy simply “regrets?” she ad libbed “I’ve had a few” then joked: “Don’t worry, I’m not going to sing, I’ll leave that to the professionals!”

But when he followed up asking her what her “chief regret” would be regarding the whole process, she replied: “Well, I’m sorry that when Theresa May called the election that she didn’t get a big enough majority to deal with Brexit in a more meaningful way and we had three tortuous years of negotiations where a lot of things could have been sorted but weren’t sorted out.”

Asked how she handles the fact that the majority of Northern Ireland voted to remain, Tubridy said it seemed to him to be a peculiar place politically.

She said: “Well it’s not really, because after the referendum happened and of course it happened across the United Kingdom – when you have a referendum here you don’t take different pockets and say well, Donegal voted one way and that voted another way and we’re going to have to take that into account.

“So the whole of the nation voted leave, therefore we have to respect democracy, but I do remember after it happened and Martin McGuinness and I sent a letter to the Westminster government where we set out where we felt there were going to be challenges and where we felt there was going to be opportunities and that was really the basis on which we were working before the executive collapsed.

Raising the collapse of the executive in 2017 over the RHI scandal, Tubridy asked if there was a figure of a £500m overspend.

But Mrs Foster said: “No, we’re actually at an underspend now because we intervened to deal with that whole issue, so there’s actually an underspend now and not an overspend.”

Asked about how she felt about the imminent findings of the Public Inquiry into RHI, she said: “Well, I welcome the Inquiry and I welcome the report for the simple reason that it became a very frenzied atmosphere in Northern Ireland at that time.

“Some very wild allegations were being put forward around all of that.”

DUP leader Arlene Foster at the RHI Inquiry

Asked if there was “corruption involved” she said: “No.” Asked was there “incompetence involved” she said: “No, there wasn’t incompetence involved.”

She also denied she covered up any warnings and when asked if she thought she’d still be the First Minister after the report comes out she said: “Yes, I do and I’ll tell you why, because I fundamentally believe there is a lot of work to do and there is much to do in Northern Ireland and I think that we have come through a heck of a lot of other big problems in Northern Ireland. People have been shot and the Executive nearly collapsed over that, welfare reform, a lot of other big issues came to the fore and we were able to deal with all of those and that’s what the disappointment is, that we weren’t able to work through those issues back in December 2016.”

Asked how her family felt about her going to the funeral of Martin McGuinness, she said: “Well, I think they understood that it wasn’t just Arlene Foster going to the funeral, I was going as the former First Minister of Northern Ireland at that time.”

She said her family did not ask her not to go and added: “And I think it was absolutely the right thing to do and there were a lot of innocent victims who felt very strongly about it at the time and I totally understand that as well, I lost friends over going to the funeral, but I still believe it was the right thing to do.”

She says those friends did not ghost her but told her directly and added: “It was difficult. These were people who I’ve known for a long time, but they take a different view in relation to this.

“I took the view that I had served with him in government, that I had worked with him in government, and that it was only the right Christian thing to do to pay my respects to somebody who had passed away.

“And as I say, as a leader you have things to do that you may not do if you were just an ordinary citizen and that was why I had to do it.”

She said getting applause at the funeral and again at attending a GAA match was “encouraging” and added: “Obviously I was apprehensive going to the funeral because I didn’t know what sort of a reception I would get, because the Executive was down at that point in time and we’d had a very difficult election, it was very polarised, so I didn’t know what sort of a reception I would get at the funeral.

“So I was apprehensive but I have to say I was welcomed very warmly.”

Tubridy then asked about the DUP stance on gay marriage and abortion rights, given the Republic’s shift on those social issues, and how Mrs Foster felt about those issues being legislated by Westminster.

She said: “I think that it should have been the Assembly that actually decided those things and that Westminster should have allowed us to decide those things and let’s be clear, I think there was a majority in the Assembly for same sex marriage and I think it would have came into being but I think it’s wrong that it was imposed upon us by Westminster.

“We’re there now and they didn’t intervene in a whole range of other things… they didn’t intervene, for example, on our waiting lists that we have in our health service where people are waiting years upon years.

“They definitely did pick and choose in relation to those issues.”

Asked why she personally opposed gay marriage she said: “Because I think marriage is between a man and a woman. I think there are other partnerships there and indeed many of my friends are in other partnerships, but I just believe that marriage is between a man and a woman.”

That statement was met with some jeers from the audience and then when Tubridy asked if she would attend the gay wedding of close friends she said: “I may well consider to do that, yeah.”

Going back to Brexit, Tubridy said he felt the possibility of a united Ireland was being talked about for the first time in his lifetime.

Mrs Foster said: “Really? Because when I was a toddler it was always being talked about. No, I don’t think it will become a reality, because there are many, many reasons why we will stay in the United Kingdom – economic, political, social, cultural – all of those reasons mean that we will stay there.

“Our National Health Service, which we are very proud of, which needs a lot of work I have to say and what we need to get down to dealing with.”

Asked how she would feel if there was a border poll and she was outnumbered, she said: “Of course I would be absolutely devastated if I was leaving the United Kingdom, because I’m a unionist, it’s what I believe in culturally and politically.

“I’m very much a traditional unionist as you know. Economically I believe it’s the right thing to do so I would be devastated of course and I don’t think, by the way, that it is going to happen and if you’re going where I think you’re going that’s not going to happen!”

That was a reference to a previous remark she made in a TV programme with Patrick Kielty where she said she would leave the country if there was a united Ireland, and Tubridy asked if she still stood by that.

Patrick Kielty speaks with DUP leader Arlene Foster about the legacy of violence in Northern Ireland. Credit: BBC Northern Ireland.

She said: “Well I think you have to look at the context of all of that, and the context was that Paddy asked – I went to Queen’s with Paddy, he’s the same age as me – he asked me that question about 27 different ways before he got the answer that he wanted.

“First of all, I don’t think it’s going to happen, Ryan. I don’t do hypotheticals and you should know I don’t do hypotheticals and that’s why that was the wrong thing to involve myself in.

“I’m a Fermanagh woman, I love the place and I love Northern Ireland, I want to make Northern Ireland a better place for everybody regardless of, by the way, your sexuality, your religion or who you believe in or who you don’t believe in.

“I really genuinely want to work with all of those people in the Executive to do all of that and that’s what I’m determined to do. And you know, just because we have different views on different things, doesn’t mean we can’t find common ground to move forward and to make Northern Ireland work.

“I am hopeful. There is a big coalition now and somebody asked me about a week before the deal was announced was I hopeful, and I said I was hopeful because it is my Christian duty to be hopeful and I have to say it’s hope that drives me on, to build a better future for my children and for everybody else’s future in Northern Ireland.”

That drew the interview to a close where Mrs Foster was again met with respectful applause from the audience.

She had earlier been billed by RTE as the main attraction on the chat show, the Republic’s most popular programme, alongside guests including the author Marian Keyes and Eurovision winner Johnny Logan.

Before her appearance, the broadcaster had boasted: “At 11pm on Friday, the bell will toll on the UK’s membership of the EU, and Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster – whose DUP party backed Brexit – will be live in studio with Ryan.”

At the top of the show he had said: “A lot of history on the show tonight, as the clock strikes 11, the UK will exit the European Union and Brexit will happen – gone, out, divorced, over.

“That moment is without doubt the biggest political moment in a generation, quite a night then for the DUP’s Arlene Foster to make her Late Late Show debut, Northern Ireland’s First Minister joining us on the couch and you can stay with us and witness that little piece of history as it happens live.”

Belfast Telegraph

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