Arlene Foster phones husband of La Mon victim to apologise for DUP conference song stunt
Arlene Foster has apologised to the Co Down man who condemned her and DUP party members for singing "Arlene's on fire" at the La Mon House Hotel.
The First Minister telephoned Billy McDowell yesterday morning - hours after the Belfast Telegraph published a story about his attack on the DUP's "insensitivity" in singing the song at the very place where an IRA firebomb exploded 38 years ago.
Mrs Foster was seen singing and dancing along with the tune at the party's annual conference at the hotel at Gransha near Comber on Saturday.
The party also issued an apology to Mr McDowell and the other La Mon families, insisting no offence was intended.
Mr McDowell's wife, Lily, who died in 2014, was the most seriously injured of the 30 people hurt in the blast.
A contrite Mrs Foster yesterday spent 10 minutes on the telephone to Mr McDowell, who had just returned home after his daily visit to his wife's grave in Cloughey, Co Down.
Mr McDowell told the Belfast Telegraph that he contacted the DUP's headquarters to protest that delegates had been "dancing on the graves" of the victims.
He said he was told that the "Arlene's on fire" song - an adaptation of the Northern Ireland football anthem - was "just young people having fun".
Mr McDowell said he was sickened and stunned by what he saw following Mrs Foster's address to her party - at one point she was seen waving her arms triumphantly in the air and dancing along with members.
Yesterday Mr McDowell said: "Mrs Foster rang me to say she was extremely sorry to have upset the La Mon victims. She said it was a spur of the moment thing and shouldn't have happened."
Mrs Foster told the widower there was no way she or any other members of her party would have gone out of their way to cause offence. But she acknowledged what happened was a mistake.
The First Minister also offered to talk to Mr McDowell face-to-face, but he said he would prefer if she met him together with other members of the Ulster Human Rights Watch organisation with which he is involved.
The group has been campaigning on behalf of victims of the Troubles, including the La Mon relatives - who had a call for a public inquiry into the atrocity turned down by the former Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers.
Commenting on the singing controversy, a DUP spokesman said that after Mrs Foster's keynote speech on Saturday, a number of younger members of the party wanted to have their photograph taken with their leader and sang an adaptation of "a well-known Northern Ireland football song".
The spokesman added: "No offence was intended and the party leader has spoken directly with Mr McDowell and will meet with him privately in the near future.
"We apologise for any hurt and distress he has experienced. We are sensitive to the pain felt by victims and realise that hurt can be caused, even in an unintentional manner."
Mr McDowell said he had accepted Mrs Foster's apology.
"There's not much else I can do - at least she did ring me personally," he added.