Northern Ireland

Arlene Foster accused of lacking self-awareness over NIO and British PM criticisms

Dame Arlene Foster. Picture by Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
Dame Arlene Foster. Picture by Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

DAME Arlene Foster has been accused of "self-pity" and a lack of self-awareness after she claimed Rishi Sunak wasn't passionate enough about the union.

The former first minister-turned-GB News presenter also described the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) as being both "anti-unionist" and the "most useless department in government".

Dame Arlene, who in August backed the ill-fated Liz Truss to be British prime minister ahead of Mr Sunak, said the latest Tory leader "has many strengths but passion for the union and understanding why it matters certainly doesn’t appear to be one of them".

“Last week he was whisked into Belfast for meetings with the political parties in Northern Ireland," she said of the prime minister's recent visit.

"It is my understanding that the parties were given next to no notice of Mr Sunak’s visit and yet the NIO, the most useless department in government, had been briefing that he was there to push for the return of devolution."

The newly-appointed cross-bench peer said successive prime ministers and secretaries of state had "sadly failed to deal with the anti-unionist bias which the NIO exhibits", which she claimed left "unionists of all hue having to deal with an aggressive Irish government".

She said Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris and the NIO "appear to have inexplicably decided to make unionism their enemy".

"It is instructive that when Sinn Féin kept the Northern Ireland government down for three years between 2017 and 2020, our government – the British government, the Conservative and Unionist government – did all it could to satisfy their demands,” she wrote in the Daily Telegraph.

Notably, the former DUP leader, whose involvement in the botched Renewable Heat Incentive scheme led to the collapse of the Stormont institutions from 2017-2020, appeared to take a softer line than many of her unionists counterparts when she said devolution would only return when there was a "resolution of the issues around the Northern Ireland Protocol", rather than replacing entirely the post-Brexit trade arrangements.

The Northern Ireland Office did not comment on Dame Arlene's remarks.

SDLP MLA Matthew O'Toole said the former first minister had demonstrated that "honesty and self criticism are always harder than blaming others for your own failures".

"As usual with Arlene Foster, these comments are long on self-pity and short on self-awareness," he said.

"Few non-unionists would see the Tory government of the past decade as even handed or neutral – they have often been stridently partisan in handling this place, especially post-Brexit, not least by negotiating a confidence and supply deal with the DUP."

The South Belfast representative said Dame Arlene would be better "reflecting on how her former party, both under her leadership and since, could possibly have done so much damage to the constitutional status quo they say they prioritise".