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Quitting EU is a big opportunity, insists Foster as divisions widen

First Minister moves to reassure people gripped by uncertainty following referendum, but angry exchanges in Assembly highlight the extent of split caused by historic vote

By Noel McAdam

Published 28/06/2016

First Minister Arlene Foster
First Minister Arlene Foster

The referendum result in Northern Ireland has exposed major divisions between the top two Executive parties.

The UK'S exit from the EU is a "huge moment of potential and opportunity", First Minister Arlene Foster said as she sought to reassure the public over an uncertain future.

But Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said the 56% majority here who opted to remain in Europe "could not be bound" by a UK vote.

"I absolutely fundamentally believe that this vote gives us the opportunity for ambition, for innovation, for flexibility and for imagination," the DUP leader told the Assembly.

Mrs Foster and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness are due to meet Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and the Irish Government tomorrow as the ramifications of the vote continue to ripple.

The pre-arranged talks were organised to review progress on last autumn's Fresh Start deal, but are now likely to be used to discuss the implications of the UK's pullout from the EU.

The Executive is also due to hold its first meeting since the referendum tomorrow, with the DUP and Sinn Fein facing in diametrically opposed directions.

During Assembly question time Mrs Foster said: "What we have at the moment is a huge moment of opportunity and potential, and it is up to us in the Executive to make sure we are well equipped to handle that opportunity and potential.

"I look forward to hearing from ministerial colleagues on how we will move forward."

Quizzed by the SDLP's Nichola Mallon, the DUP leader said she accepted that a majority in Northern Ireland had voted to stay and she intended to respect that. "There's no real surprise there. At the beginning of the referendum campaign we were told that up to 75% would vote to remain. At the end of the day it was 56%," she said.

"The campaign is over, the vote has been taken, and now our focus is to ensure that Northern Ireland's best interests are preserved."

Ms Mallon said the people of the province had sent a clear instruction that they wanted to remain in the EU and she wanted to know how Mrs Foster was going to act on their "clearly expressed democratic will".

The First Minister said: "The mandated instruction was not to this place but to the UK Parliament. We were asked whether we wanted the UK to leave or remain."

Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey asked Mrs Foster to give reassurance for EU nationals living here who were concerned over the result.

Saying she "absolutely welcomed the opportunity", the First Minister added she wanted to "reassure them that we absolutely value what they give to Northern Ireland, and what they have contributed to Northern Ireland".

Sinn Fein's John O'Dowd said: "No matter how you look at this group of islands, they are divided like they have never been divided before. We have to recognise that the EU referendum result is the biggest single social and economic shock to hit the island of Ireland since partition."

The former Education Minister added: "Regardless of where your allegiances lie, whether they lie with the Union, or, as mine and those of my party colleagues do, with the reunification of Ireland, we have to deal with it.

Winding up, Mrs Foster said: "We are determined to use our influence to build for the future.

"The coming weeks and months will, I have no doubt, present many challenges.

"But the Deputy First Minister and I have both made clear we will continue to work for all the people of Northern Ireland."

Individual departmental teams were being put in place by senior civil servants to consider the implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland and identify future challenges and opportunities, the First Minister informed those in the chamber.

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