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Revealed: The personal side to Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill's relationship

  • Foster: Cash-for-ash was hurtful, but I'm stronger

  • O'Neill: Arlene and I can work together on many issues

  • Foster: Gay marriage views don't mean I'm homophobic

By Suzanne Breen

Sinn Fein's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill has said she has no problem working with Arlene Foster and that the two women share "common ground" on many issues.

A more positive relationship between Ms O'Neill and Mrs Foster than is publicly known has been revealed with the Sinn Fein leader disclosing that she texts her DUP counterpart.

She was speaking as Mrs Foster talked about how "personally very tough" she found the 'cash for ash' scandal earlier this year but that she had "come out stronger on the other side".

The revelations from Northern Ireland's two female leaders came in candid interviews away from the cameras that the pair gave to Sky News Ireland correspondent, David Blevins at a meeting on Monday organised by the Methodist Church.

Ms O'Neill became very tearful at the event in Castlewellan when talking about her party predecessor Martin McGuinness.

Mrs Foster came out strongly against same sex marriage but was emotional when insisting that her opposition didn't mean she was a homophobe.

The apparent lack of animosity in the relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein leaders surprised one member of the audience who said they had a better rapport than he had anticipated.

"This wasn't the usual Punch and Judy show. Each of them was interviewed separately for about 15 minutes and there were questions from the audience.

"But Arlene and Michelle did sit together in the audience before coming on stage," he said.

Around 300 people attended the event which was not open to the general public.

When asked if Mrs Foster was a woman with whom she could do business, Ms O'Neill said: "Of course she is. Arlene and I can work together on many issues. There are many things where we can have common ground and share the same platforms."

She agreed that they had "difficulties which we have to work our way through" and had diametrically opposed views on the Union but "that's the cut and thrust of politics, that's normal".

Ms O'Neill insisted that Sinn Fein wanted to see power-sharing restored. "I want to be in the institutions, I want to be in the Executive," she said.

"I want to pick my ministers, my departments, make sure we go out and do the business and deliver how we're supposed to, how the public are asking us to deliver so that's where we want to be and that's what we're actively working on every day."

Mrs Foster was asked what the biggest challenge in the past year had been for her. She admitted that it was the fallout from the 'cash for ash' scandal.

"That was personally very tough but thankfully, I had a very strong family at home and my own personal faith and the party all came to the fore at that particular point in time," she said.

"We're always sent things for a reason and, having come through that, I think I've probably come out stronger on the other side."

Ms O'Neill became tearful when recalling a seriously ill Martin McGuinness asking her if she would become Sinn Fein's leader in Northern Ireland.

"I was very honoured and very privileged and very lucky because I worked with Martin in the last 20 years," she said.

"I think we've had such an emotional year, particularly because we've lost Martin and I think that we've been so busy with the political crisis and fighting elections.

"Sometimes you haven't had a chance to sit back and actually digest what's happened so that's why I still get very emotional when I try to talk about Martin."

She said that had Mr McGuinness lived, he would have attended the Methodist event himself.

"This is where (he) would be tonight and I want to carry on his work because he genuinely believed in reconciliation," she added.

When asked about equal marriage, Mrs Foster said her party took "a very specific view" that marriage was "between a man and a woman".

She said that civil partnerships were open to people of the same sex who "wish to live together and co-habit".

The "redefinition of marriage is a step too far and that has long been our position, it remains my position very firmly", she said.

She found it "frustrating" that "if you stand up for marriage and if you stand up for the definition of marriage as we believe in it, then in some way that makes you homophobic and a hater of gays".

She added: "Nothing could be further from the truth as far as I personally am concerned and it really does hurt me when people call me a homophobe just because I stand up for the definition of marriage which I believe in.

"I think this debate has become very toxic. I was glad to see at the Pride parade on Saturday that there was not the same repeat of some of the scenes we had at the London Pride parade with profane language directed towards my party."

Mrs O'Neill was asked if her attendance at IRA commemorations damaged her attempts to portray herself as a force for reconciliation

"I always went to commemorations. I'm a republican and I think it's important that we remember this - that your view and my view will be different on the past," she explained.

The Sinn Fein leader said she was standing with families who had lost loved ones. "One Mummy's pain is no different from anybody else's," she stated.

"The Good Friday Agreement said we all have the right to respect and remember our dead and we should do so in a dignified manner and that's what I do. It's never going to go away, I'm not going to stop doing that, just because I become a political leader.

"I don't stop being who I am. I'm a republican activist, I have a certain view, which may differ from other people's view - but what I do think is really important is that I do everything I can in terms of reconciling our past ... building bridges and making sure we create a better future for our children."

When asked if she "secretly admired" the DUP for securing a £1.5 billion deal with Theresa May to keep the Tories in power, she said: "It would be churlish of me not to welcome it of course because anything that goes back into public services that have been stripped out by the same British government (is good).

"I don't think the deal's a good one but I'm not going to end on a negative point."

Mrs Foster was asked what she "secretly admired" about Sinn Fein.

"I suppose I admire their tenacity and the fact that if they decide that this is the route that they're taking and this is the issue they're going to campaign on, they stick with it," she said.

"Nothing blows them off that and I think that is something to be admired."

The DUP leader was asked about her political role models with references made to her being both "Northern Ireland's Theresa May" and "the new Iron Lady".

Mrs Foster said she was nine years old when Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister and her ascendancy had "a big impact in terms of female participation and the fact that a woman could be the leader of the UK was a tremendous thing to take in".

She also stressed the importance of going to an all-girls' school.

"I know it's terribly untrendy to say it now, but it had a significant impact on my life because it gave me a great deal of confidence, built up my self-esteem and led me to make the decision to apply to Queen's to do law," she said.

Membership of the Girl Guides had also been a positive experience in terms of "female empowerment", she added.

Ms O'Neill was asked about her childhood holidays. She disclosed they were spent in a caravan in Bundoran, Co Donegal, where facilities were limited and everybody washed in the same basin of water.

Up to 10 adults and children were crammed into one car for the journey.

"There was no such thing as seatbelts at that time, we were all squashed into the back. We probably stopped about three times going up the road for people to be sick.

"It really was an episode but some of the best memories of my life were definitely in the summer in Bundoran," she said.

She also explained that as her uncle lived in America, she spent some summers there with her brother.

Other cousins were "green with envy because we were getting to America and my uncle had a pool. We thought we were in a TV show, unreal."

She recalled being bought a beautiful dress with a bell on it when in the US. One day she was dancing around the caravan in Bundoran - "I thought I was nobody's business" - when she fell into the water.

"That story's still told at every family occasion just to put me back in my box and the strongest memories of my childhood are those sorts of occasions, everybody getting together," she said.

"You didn't have iPads or access to wifi. You just went out and made your own craic and it didn't cost any money."

The Castlewellan Holiday Week which hosted the meeting Mrs Foster and Ms O'Neill spoke at has been held every August for 33 years. Other panel members at the debate were Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw and Fine Gael Senator Neale Richmond.

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