DUP conference: Arlene Foster blames Dublin for ‘poaching' potential investors

Arlene Foster in her first address as party leader to the annual DUP conference at La Mon House Hotel. Picture by Mark Marlow, Pacemaker Press.

DUP leader Arlene Foster has accused the Republic’s government of talking down the north’s economy and attempting to “poach our investors”.

The first minister told her party’s weekend conference that relations with Dublin were “probably as good as they have been at any point in our history”, but she repeated her claim that Enda Kenny’s bid to establish an all-Ireland civic forum on Brexit was driven by “political instability” in the south.

The Republic’s Fine Gael government has put the remarks down to the “own particular dynamics” of party conferences.

Addressing around 400 DUP members at the La Mon hotel in Co Down, Mrs Foster said she was proud of the role her party played in the EU referendum campaign.

She said there were “many good people on both sides” of the EU membership debate and that she respected those who believed that the UK’s best interests were served by retaining links with Brussels.

However, the Mrs Foster said she had “no time for those who want to refight the referendum”. The Brexit debate was over, she said, and people should stop talking up the challenges and focus instead on opportunities.

“Brexit represents the biggest economic opportunity for this country in decades,” she said.

“But the only way that we can ensure that Northern Ireland’s interests are best served is if we are united and determined.”

The DUP leader outlined five principles that she said would guide her through the negotiations.

She said her bottom line was that “Brexit means Brexit” and that the whole of the UK would leave the EU.

The first minister said Northern Ireland’s economic relations with Britain were paramount but acknowledged that any deal over withdrawal “must recognise the reality of our geography and of our history”.

She said her party would work with anybody to “get the best deal” and that the Brexit negotiations would not divert her “from delivering on my plan to build a better Northern Ireland”.

The first minister said May’s assembly elections marked a “significant staging post on the road to normal politics” and that last year’s Fresh Start agreement paved the way for the creation of an official opposition at Stormont.

She said opposition was “good for politics” and that the Storomont executive was functioning better than at any stage since the restoration of devolution in 1999.

“But there has to be more to opposition than sound-bites, sniping and smug sneers,” she said before likening Mike Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood to 1970s comedy characters Steptoe and Son.

“Actually, the similarities are amazing – one was an older, bitter man; the other was a frustrated, younger man,” she said.

“They had to live together but they never got on – and they made a living selling junk to the public.”

However, she said it was important that the new opposition arrangements were not “just a one term wonder but become part of the fabric of our emerging constitutional set-up”.

Noting that relations with Dublin were good, Mrs Foster said she would continue to work with Enda Kenny’s government “where it is in the best interests of Northern Ireland to do so”.

“However, the reality is that political instability in Dublin, and fears for their own future, are driving their decision-making at present as much as any concern about Northern Ireland,” she said.

“And while they seek to take the views of people of Northern Ireland on the issue of Brexit at home, their representatives are sent out around the world to talk down our economy and to attempt to poach our investors.”

The DUP leader said the one place that a hard border exists was “in the mind of the Irish government”.

A spokesman for the Republic’s government said it was “focussed on responding to the real risks of Brexit in a way that will minimise its negative impacts for all of the people on this island”.

“Our engagement in Northern Ireland is consistent with the government's responsibilities under the GFA,” the spokesman said.

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