DUP leader Arlene Foster ends weeks of speculation and attends Ulster GAA final
DUP leader Arlene Foster said yesterday that she hoped her attendance at an GAA Ulster final would be a helpful step towards reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
After weeks of speculation, fuelled by her tweet congratulating her native Fermanagh on their semi-final win over Monaghan and meeting with team members to wish them luck, Mrs Foster arrived at St Tiernach’s Park, accompanied by South Belfast MLA Christopher Stalford.
The Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA, attending her first GAA match, took her seat in advance of the game and stood for the national anthem as Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill stood directly behind her.
The former first minister was not the only unionist politician in the stands, with the chairman of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, Ulster Unionist Howard Thornton also in attendance.
The DUP had remained tight-lipped about whether the former First Minister would be present.
While Mrs Foster is the first DUP leader to attend the showpiece event others in her party have previously attended games including former minister Peter Robinson who attended the Dr McKenna Cup final along with then deputy first minister Martin McGuinness in 2012.
However, the move by Mrs Foster - at the biggest occasion in Ulster GAA - is the biggest sign of rapprochement between unionism and the GAA to date.
In recent weeks Mrs Foster travelled to a Belfast Islamic Centre event to mark the end of Ramadan and is due to attend an LGBT gathering at Stormont on Thursday.
One theory was that – repeating the example of former Secretary of State James Brokenshire - she would slip into the stadium at some stage after the playing of Amhrán na bhFiann.
However, at around 1.30pm, half an hour before the throw-in, the DUP leader stepped out of a car outside the Gerry Arthurs stand.
To applause and cheers from fans of both teams, and in front of a huge media presence, Mrs Foster was welcomed by Ulster GAA President Michael Hasson and Cavan-Monaghan TD and the Republic's business minister Heather Humphreys.
After the initial greetings, the DUP leader was ushered into a tearoom which remained shut off to the waiting media and was closely guarded by several garda officers.
Shortly before the start of the game Mrs Foster appeared pitchside to give a short interview. She thanked the GAA for the warm welcome she had received.
The DUP leader also acknowledged that her attendance at the match would make some "uncomfortable" but said she was the leader of a political party that "wants a shared society in Northern Ireland and to do that we have to take steps".
"I am hoping that others will take the chance to step forward as well and understand and appreciate and tolerate another culture that perhaps isn’t theirs," added Mrs Foster.
Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill, who was photographed with the DUP leader at the end of the match, welcomed her presence as "very helpful".
"We should all continually do things like this on a frequent basis," said Ms O’Neill.
"I think it is important that we all in political leadership step outside our comfort zone..and obviously the GAA is a big part of the nationalist community."
Asked if it was another step on the road to an agreement to restore power-sharing, the Sinn Féin vice-president said: "We always have to give people hope and we have to send out a strong message that if we are going to be able to govern together we have to work alongside each other and respect each other…. I think today’s visit has been very helpful."