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.”
— Arlene Foster #WeWillMeetAgain (@ArleneFosterUK) June 14, 2021
Her remarks come amid an intensifying dispute over the process to replace her.
A stand-off between Sinn Féin 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 Northern Ireland 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 Féin 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 Féin 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 Féin demand, and insisted there were other priorities the Executive should be focusing on, including the health service and economy.