The head of the Democratic Unionist party has moved to heal the wounds over Brexit, declaring that it is not in Northern Ireland’s interests if Ireland does not prosper when the UK leaves the European Union.
In a rare speech south of the border, Arlene Foster told delegates at an economic summit in Killarney that while she did not agree with the concerns of the Irish government over Brexit she understood them and shared their concern over a hard border.
The speech, widely seen as a bridge-building exercise, came weeks after the DUP pulled the plug on a Brexit deal on Ireland secured after months of talks between London and Brussels.
Senior politicians immediately welcomed the gesture, which could smooth relations between Dublin, Belfast and London.
Frank Feighan, a Irish senator and vice-chair of the British-Irish parliamentary assembly, said it was “a gesture that was very much appreciated”.
Foster told an audience at the Killarney Economic Conference in County Kerry on Saturday that she was keen to promote friendly, warm, cross-border relations, even after Brexit.
She said her region and the Irish Republic were like “two semi-detached houses” shared by good neighbours.
The DUP leader said: “I appreciate and understand that nowhere will be more impacted by the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union than Ireland. I grew up only a few miles from the Fermanagh-Monaghan border. I saw for myself growing up how even during our darkest days we shared close economic, cultural and social ties across the border.
“Those ties have strengthened since the Troubles ended, to the extent that in recent times we have enjoyed extraordinarily, unimaginably positive relations between our two states. I don’t want to lose any of that.”
Foster said she was confident that both states could still be successful, even though one was staying in the EU while the other was leaving.
“We will continue to have our own identities and, for our part, we will no longer be members of the European Union, but our futures will be still closely connected,” she added.
Her conciliatory tone comes after relations between the DUP and the Irish government soured before Christmas over Dublin’s demand that Northern Ireland be given some form of special economic status that would in effect allow the region to remain within the EU single market.
The DUP regarded such a move, which the British government resisted, as decoupling Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
As well as being the only party in the Northern Ireland assembly to openly campaign for Brexit, the DUP now exercises immense influence over the UK’s Conservative government. The 10 DUP MPs at Westminster hold the balance of power in parliament and have extracted a £1bn-plus aid package for Northern Ireland as the price for their support for the minority Tory administration.