Foster accepts responsibility for anti-nationalist perception
DUP leader Arlene Foster has moved to defuse nationalist anger in the aftermath of her disastrous campaign launch speech in which she attacked Sinn Féin and its long-running call for an Irish language act.
In an unusual move, the former first minister has used The Irish News as a platform and appears to acknowledge that some recent remarks went too far. She even speaks of "building a new spirit of co-operation".
Mrs Foster sets out to redress the perception that she is hostile to nationalism and republicanism, insisting "nothing could be further from the truth".
She says she respects those with "different cultural interests" and adds that her opposition to an Irish language act is based not on prejudice but on its potential cost.
Last month, the DUP leader warned that the forthcoming election would be "brutal". Her party's campaign so far has focused on attacking Sinn Féin – and Gerry Adams in particular – alongside claims that republicans are seeking to "rewrite the past".
However, there was a storm of criticism after Mrs Foster's remarks at her party's campaign launch last Monday.
Asked about Sinn Féin calls for an Irish language act, the former first minister said her party would never accede to such a measure, adding: "If you feed a crocodile, it will keep coming back for more."
But now the DUP leader appears to be rowing back from her belligerent opening gambit of the campaign.
"In the last few months, for a range of reasons, the perception has grown that I am hostile to the interests of nationalist and republican people living in Northern Ireland," she says.
"I take my share of responsibility for some people having cause to believe that but nothing could be further from the truth."
Mrs Foster says that she grew up and has lived all of her life with nationalist neighbours and has always sought to be "even handed" in representing her constituents.
"My record as economy minister demonstrates my support and enthusiasm for business from all sections of the community," she said.
"If history teaches us anything about Northern Ireland, we know that it is only when all sections of the community support the governing arrangements and are content that politics will work for anyone."
The former first minister, whose refusal to stand aside while an investigation into the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme precipitated the March 2 election, has sought to "debunk some of the myths" about her relationship in government with Sinn Féin. She suggests claims about a lack of partnership in the Stormont executive are "misplaced".
"Understandably in the heat of an election relationships become fraught but things were very different just a few months ago," she states before citing the joint platform she penned with Martin McGuinness on November 21 last year.
"Some of it now reads like it was from a different era," she says before recalling how the two former Stormont leaders had vowed to work "together effectively and collectively".
"It hardly seems credible with what has now been claimed by Sinn Féin about their relationship with the DUP that such sentiments could ever have been expressed," Mrs Foster says.
She notes how in November Mr McGuiness wanted her to travel to China to represent the executive and how their two parties had signed off the draft programme for government .
"And even when differences did arise between the two parties, we sat down and resolved them behind the scenes and away from the cameras," the DUP leader says.
"Indeed there were many positive things achieved by Martin McGuinness and I during our time in government that were beneficial to everyone."
Addressing the criticism levelled at her over "don't feed the crocodile" remark and her attitude to the Irish language act, Mrs Foster says those who "genuinely" want to speak Irish are "entitled to do so as part of the increasing diversity of our society".
"However there can be no escaping the fact that some have politicised the language and if we are to move forward together we most do so from a position of mutual respect for each other’s cultures and traditions," she said.
"My opposition to the political demand of an Irish Language Act is not based on a hostility to the Irish language but on potentially costly proposals which would guarantee Irish being treated as the same as English, affirmative action for Irish speakers in the civil service and the creation of criminal offences for failure to co-operate with a new Irish language commissioner."
The DUP leader believes the funds would be better spent on health and education.