Northern Ireland news

Arlene Foster says EU 'in denial' over protocol in final speech as first minister

Arlene Foster gives her final speech as first minister in the assembly today. Picture by PA Wire/NI Assembly

Arlene Foster has used a farewell speech in the Assembly to call for respect for different identities in the north while also criticising the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol.

Delivering a personal statement to the Assembly this afternoon, Ms Foster said: "I have tendered my resignation as first minister of Northern Ireland, effective from 1pm today.

"Thank you to you and your office for this opportunity to address the chamber one last time ... and I promise not to sing.

"Mr Speaker, colleagues both inside and outside this House know very well that all periods of leadership must come to an end.

"That is why, when we are privileged and honoured with holding such a position, we must not waste a moment in frivolous brinkmanship but rather forge ahead on behalf of those we represent.

"Whilst I will miss the exchanges from this seat, I am looking forward to fresh challenges."

Ms Foster continued: "This will be my last speech in this forum, but I very much plan to continue to speak up on behalf of women in public life, as well as our children, by seeking better protections for everyone on social media.

"When I was at school bullying occurred but, when children stepped off the bus, their home could be a safe haven. Today, our young people have no escape, the bullies are following them right into their bedroom. We must act.

"Suffice to say, just like all politicians who resign, I will now spend more time with my family. So my lovely mum, my darling husband and my three beloved children will see more of me - whether they like it or not.

"It's just as well, Mr Speaker, I am such a good daughter, wife and mother. Those of us in public life know that we cannot fully function without the support of our loved ones and I've had that support in abundance.

"I wish my successors as party leader and first minister well, and I want to thank politicians from across the political spectrum for their good wishes.

"I've been overwhelmed - even some in the naughty corner found something good to say. If only you had said all those nice things a few years ago, it would have saved us all time."

Ms Foster said she believes strongly "in the good sense of the people of Northern Ireland to continue to recognise the value of our place within the United Kingdom".

"A UK that has helped see us through the worst ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic, with unprecedented financial support.

"Our incomparable National Health Service, and a national vaccination programme that is the envy of the rest of the world."

Ms Foster referred to the RHI controversy, which led to the collapse of Stormont.

She said: "When faced with false allegations of corruption, I defended myself vigorously to clear my name.

"No-one should have to tolerate such assaults on their character, but misleading interviews and salacious claims that would not survive the glare of an inquiry created a febrile atmosphere that coincided with the declining health of Martin McGuinness.

"The result: a crisis that led to the unnecessary loss of devolution.

"Lost years for Northern Ireland and a period when public services inevitably slumped backwards."

Referring to the continuing row over an Irish language act, Ms Foster said: "Too often a demand to advance Irish identity in the language of equality saw simultaneous calls to reduce or denigrate other forms of expression.

"This was always a destabilising approach in a society seeking healing, and risked simply creating a new dispossessed community. This cycle needed to be broken.

"This is why my team and I sought and secured a cultural package that would see a range of measures to advance identities and protect them for future generations.

"This is the only model for success - not one step forward for some and one step back for others.

"This will be the basis for sharing this place we all cherish and take pride in.

"And, yes, it also includes a Commissioner for the Irish language."

Ms Foster said different identities exist in Northern Ireland.

"Let us realise, in every corner of this House, that people live here who have an Irish identity, others have a British identity, some have a British and Irish identity, some are British and Northern Irish, and there are new emerging identities, but for all of us this place is called home.

"We can poke each other in the eye and have a competition of 'my identity is better than yours', but it is only by respecting each other's identity that we will move forward.

"The beauty of the Union is that we can all have our identities and live here side by side."

Ms Foster said relations between the UK and Ireland and the UK and EU are "out of balance".

"An imbalance created by the (Northern Ireland) Protocol," she said. "It is not a real partnership. An imbalance and an instability is built in that will fester and deteriorate.

"If Brussels continues to think the protocol is enough, they are in denial.

"Imbalance and instability in the context of Northern Ireland is a truly dangerous cocktail.

"Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and needs to be treated as such."

Ms Foster concluded by saying that "strong, functioning and successful devolution" is vital to a successful Northern Ireland.

"Our Lord taught the parable of the Good Samaritan. I'm sure we have all heard it, but remember two people passed by. They closed their eyes to the injured Jewish man.

"I haven't always made the right calls. None of us are perfect but at the end of the parable our Lord asks 'Who is your neighbour?' - the one who stopped to offer help.

"Remember - stopping meant the Samaritan reaching out across a religious divide. It also meant him reaching into his own pocket and paying a price to provide shelter for the injured man.

"Let's be good neighbours."

Assembly speaker Alex Maskey said Arlene Foster has been a "key player" in the assembly.

Paying tribute to her, the Sinn Féin said: "There has never been any shortage of people offering advice or criticism on every issue in this process, and that was often a very good thing.

"But, as I've often found myself, the world and his granny will always have something to say.

"However, there are only a few individuals, Arlene being one, who have had to carry the burden of leadership, and balance political views, individual party views and mandates.

"That been evident during the pandemic in the role that Arlene has played with others in getting us through this difficult period, and will be remembered, in my view, in a positive manner.

"Our outgoing first minister has been vocal about the toxic influence that social media often has on our political discourse, and many can stand with her on the need to tackle that.

"I want to record the negative aspects that, unfortunately, now come with being in the public eye, cannot have been easy for her or her family."

Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill said power-sharing in Stormont cannot be built on "broken promises".

Speaking about restoring the Assembly, she said: "We stood in this chamber and made our commitments to working together, that it was very much a day of hope, that we needed to deliver on power-sharing.

"It needs to be about tackling waiting lists and reforming our health service.

"You cannot build power-sharing on broken promises.

"You must deliver upon agreements that have been made. I'm committed to that, I hope others are committed to doing that.

"Arlene, every best wish for the future and I hope you get some special time with your family."

Ms O'Neill added: "Being in public life, as we all know, isn't an easy job. It can very challenging and there are many highs and many low.

"For a female in public life it is even more challenging. Sacrifices are made and we have to deal with the additional burden of misogyny that exists.

"If there is one thing we have done well together, it is highlight that on numerous occasions."

New DUP leader Edwin Poots said history will be "kind" to Ms Foster.

Mr Poots told the Assembly that Mrs Foster has had a "hugely successful" career.

"I believe history will be very kind to Arlene, it should be very kind to her because she has done a considerable course of work in ensuring that we move forward.

"Even after the difficult times of 2017 with the collapse of devolution, the commitment was there, and always there to ensure that we could get back together again, that we could take people forward again. And they could ensure that the public had this place to make decisions for them on their behalf."

Mr Poots described Ms Foster as a unionist and also a devolutionist.

"She, like I, was a child of the Troubles, and had a similar circumstance in that the Troubles visited our homes," he said.

"For Arlene I believe having peace in Northern Ireland and ensuring that we have peace and that we have a away of working with each other was a powerful part of what she done in her politics and what she sought to ensure in her politics, and in leading her to work with people who would have been regarded as enemies."

Ahead of the Assembly sitting, Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy said the new DUP leadership have failed to give any assurances that they will honour their commitments to legislate on Irish language.

Mr Murphy said the DUP's "broken commitments" have "undermined seriously the ability to do power-sharing".

He said Sinn Féin has told the British and Dublin governments that it has "run out of road" in its efforts to secure assurances from the DUP on the Irish language issue.

"We want to see resolution to this," he said.

"That's what we've been trying to achieve over the last number of days and weeks.

"We still want to see resolution to all of this, but we have to talk to both governments, who are co-guarantors of this agreement, and make them very much aware of the situation where a central partner that we have in government is no longer prepared to honour the commitments that they give all of us, including both governments, in January last year."

Mr Murphy said: "What we're saying is these matters need to be resolved. We have tried our best over the last number of days in good faith to honour the commitments we made and to make others do the same, do likewise.

"And we have told the governments we have run out of road and the DUP are clearly not going to do that.

"It's been disingenuous to say in public that they intend to do these at all haste and to expedite these matters when clearly they're telling us in private that they have no intention of doing that.

"We have told both governments we need a resolution to this, we want to resolve this, we want to continue the work of the executive in power-sharing, but this needs to be resolved."

Paying tribute to Ms Foster, TUV leader Jim Allister said that retiring is the last word you would associate with the outgoing first minister.

He said: "We have had many disagreements, still have. But she has always conducted her office in a manner with considerable poise and presence, which will not be easy to replicate.

"In all my dealings with her, I found her straightforward and honourable. It could not be said that her removal from office was either straightforward or honourable."

Mr Allister said the process had left a "considerable scar on the body politic".

UUP leader Doug Beattie thanked Arlene Foster for her commitment, service and sacrifices.

He added: "You have carried yourself with the utmost dignity.

"Even when that 'et tu, Brute' moment came from those who you would have called your friends, I think you held yourself with incredible dignity.

"If there is something I will reflect on in the months and years ahead, is just how our First Minister went through this crisis and many other crises before holding your head up high and you should be proud.

"It's noticed politically and it's noticed by society in general.

"I don't mean just Northern Ireland, I mean further afield.

"There was lots to be done, it wasn't all completed but I thought that was a fine final speech as you resigned. You could have made much mischief in the House, but you didn't and set a very clear path."

DUP colleague and Ms Foster's closest friend in the Assembly, Peter Weir, said that she is "good banter and good company".

"I have known Arlene through her days at Queen's (University), through her days in young unionists, through days as a solicitor, through her days as environment minister, ETI minister, finance minister and finally as first minister," Mr Weir told the Assembly.

"I can reflect on the many public achievements she is associated with, through the form of local government, to the massive boost she gave to the economy, to taking us through the pandemic, to shattering the glass ceiling and indeed, most recently, taking on and have the guts to take on the internet trolls.

"It's also the private Arlene who is good company and good banter. I can remember a duet once that involved Arlene and Nelson McCausland when they sang Islands In The Stream, when somehow Nelson started singing the Dolly Parton part.

"I also remember her as part of the many one-to-one private interactions that Arlene gave to people.

"The one thing I associate with Arlene is that of loyalty.

"Loyalty to her friends and family, loyalty to her beloved Fermanagh and South Tyrone, loyalty to the people of Northern Ireland and loyalty to the unionist cause.

"Loyalty sometimes comes at a cost but it is always a price worth paying."

Justice Minister Naomi Long said she had not always seen eye to eye with Arlene Foster but that had not stopped them working closely together.

The Alliance leader thanked Ms Foster for leading the Executive during a "particularly challenging" time given the strained relationships between parties.

"I know that it's often been difficult to make the progress Arlene herself would have wished, but I want to thank her for her hard work over the course of this mandate and in her previous roles and government," Ms Long said.

"It would be fair to say that we have not always seen eye to eye and have had our fair share of disagreements over the years. Some of them could even be described as heated although I know members will find that hard to believe given that we're both such shy and retiring characters.

"However we have been able to disagree and to continue to work together to try to deliver the best possible outcomes for those we represent."

She told the Assembly Ms Foster had made a "huge personal sacrifice to serve the public" and she wished her and her family all the best as she moves on from her role in the Assembly.

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis, called Arlene Foster a "truly dedicated public servant".

He added: "It is now essential that the transition to new leadership is as smooth as possible, and I have encouraged both the DUP and Sinn Fein to ensure that their nominations for First Minister and deputy First Minister are put forward in good time.

"The people of Northern Ireland need strong political leadership. It is paramount that there remains a functioning Executive that is able to work in the best interests of all the people and communities of Northern Ireland, delivering on the issues that matter to them most.

"Over the coming days I will remain resolutely committed to engaging with all the Northern Ireland parties and doing everything I can to ensure that a stable and functioning Executive continues to be in place.

"History has shown that political stability cannot be taken for granted and we all have a responsibility to protect it."

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