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Arlene Foster: We're stronger together but it must be built on respect and tolerance for all

By Arlene Foster, MLA

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of visiting Our Lady's Grammar School in Newry. It was uplifting to meet young pupils who had a passion for language. It is vital that we learn from other people's experiences, regardless of their background.

As someone not from a background where Irish was spoken, it has been really useful to hear about how learning Irish has had a positive impact on pupils' lives, and in the case of past pupils', future careers.

I spent time with over 30 pupils and staff, hearing various personal accounts and experiences of learning Irish. I was treated to musical and dramatic performances as well as being presented with gifts. In the two hours I spent in Newry, it was fun, informative and there were no attempts to politically point score, just young ladies who loved language.

A few weeks ago I decided to use the Easter break to engage with Irish speakers and listen to how they would like to see the language supported in Northern Ireland.

I received invitations from people throughout the United Kingdom and also the Republic of Ireland.

Whilst not expecting to received so much interest, it has been exactly the wide-ranging type of consultation that I wanted.

So far, I have travelled all over the island and talked with people who work in areas such as academia, business, media, schools, justice and government. Later today, I will meet with a number of other Irish language groups from Northern Ireland.

I am not from a background of Irish language or culture but I have thoroughly enjoyed the engagement so far and found it refreshing.

As I expected, there are a wide range of views as to how best to support the language. There has also been a plea to depoliticize the language. I found myself in agreement with people who were deeply nationalist and republican but who agreed with me that the Irish language had been abused and used as a political cudgel.

The Irish language should not, and cannot, be used by anyone as a political weapon. It is grossly unfair that the Irish language has been used as a political football by some politicians in Northern Ireland. The Irish language should not be a stumbling block to setting up an executive in Northern Ireland.

To be clear, the DUP is prepared for government now, we have no red lines. Education, health, the economy and our children's futures are too important to be held to ransom.

During the election, we heard about respect. We heard that respect was integral to the future of politics in Northern Ireland.

There is no one in the Democratic Unionist Party who could disagree that respect is a vital part of democracy.

Nevertheless, respect must be a two-way street.

We have nothing to fear from our neighbours' culture though it be different from our own.

All our citizens should get the opportunity to celebrate and promote their culture and identity.

I have a genuine desire to work with all communities to make Northern Ireland a better place.

Today, the pupils presented me with a lovely painting. Set against a background of two young ladies, it said in Irish and English "Together we are strong".

This is true for any society but much more for Northern Ireland. I will continue to work to build a shared future for everyone.

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