Northern Ireland will only move forward when the region’s differing identities are respected by all, resigning First Minister Arlene Foster has said.
Making her resignation speech to the Assembly chamber, the ousted DUP leader said her time as First Minister may have ended “abruptly” but she vowed to pursue “unfinished business” in championing Northern Ireland in other ways.
Mrs Foster, who acknowledged she had not always made the right calls, became emotional as she closed her speech with an appeal for MLAs to act as “good neighbours”.
Assembly colleagues applauded as Mrs Foster ended her speech with the line “over and out”.
During her speech she addressed the row over the Irish language that threatens to destabilise the powersharing administration in the wake of her resignation.
“Let us realise in every corner of this House, that people live here who have an Irish identity, 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,” Mrs Foster told MLAs.
“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.”
Her remarks come amid an intensifying dispute over the process to replace her.
A stand-off between Sinn Fein and the DUP on the vexed issue of Irish language legislation has the potential to derail the powersharing institutions unless a resolution is found in the coming days.
Mrs Foster’s formal resignation as joint head of the devolved Executive sets the clock ticking on a seven-day time frame within which the DUP must renominate its chosen successor, Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan.
However, the joint nature of the office Mrs Foster shares with deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein means Ms O’Neill must also be renominated to her role within those seven days.
If one of the parties fails to renominate within the time period, a properly functioning executive cannot be formed and the UK Government assumes a legal responsibility to call a snap Assembly election.
On Sunday, a simmering row over the process escalated when Sinn Fein made clear it would only engage in the renomination process if it was accompanied by the commencement of legislating for protections for Irish language speakers.
On Monday, DUP leader Edwin Poots said there could be no preconditions attached to the nomination process.
He reiterated that he was committed to implementing all outstanding aspects of the 2020 deal to restore powersharing, including Irish language legislation.
However, he declined to indicate whether he would move on the language laws in the current Assembly mandate, a Sinn Fein demand, and insisted there were other priorities the Executive should be focusing on, including the health service and economy.
Mr Poots said a Sinn Fein refusal to nominate a deputy First Minister could put peace “at risk” in Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy responded by claiming the DUP’s “broken commitments” on the Irish language had “undermined seriously the ability to do power-sharing”.
He said Sinn Fein has told the UK and Irish governments that it had “run out of road” in its efforts to secure assurances from the DUP on the language issue.
“We want to see resolution to this,” he said.
During her speech, Mrs Foster stressed that the cultural aspects of the NDNA agreement also included protections for the Ulster Scots/British tradition.
She said it was unhelpful to view it solely as legislation affecting the Irish language tradition.
“Too often a demand to advance Irish identity in the language of equality saw simultaneous calls to reduce or denigrate other forms of expression,” she said.
“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.”
Mrs Foster also used her speech to reiterate her criticism of post-Brexit trading arrangements that have created economic barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
She said relations between the UK and Ireland and the UK and EU were “out of balance” as a result of the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol.
“It is not a real partnership,” she said.
“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.”
The ex-DUP leader also referred to her much-criticised role in the botched renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme, a controversy that led to the collapse of Stormont in January 2017.
“When faced with false allegations of corruption, I defended myself vigorously to clear my name,” she said, noting that the claims were rejected in a subsequent public inquiry.
Mrs Foster said the three-year powersharing impasse triggered by RHI was “unnecessary” and led to a period when “public services inevitably slumped backwards”.
She concluded by saying that “strong, functioning and successful devolution” was vital to a successful Northern Ireland.