Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster's GAA gesture is latest in long line of steps on road to reconciliation

By David Young

Arlene Foster's outreach to the GAA community yesterday is the latest in a long line of historic handshakes and gestures of reconciliation by political representatives of Northern Ireland's divided communities.

In 2010 the then SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie broke with tradition to wear a poppy during her attendance at the Remembrance Day ceremony at Belfast's Cenotaph.

Two years later Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander, shook hands with the Queen during her visit to Belfast's Lyric Theatre. It was to be the first of several encounters between the two, one of which saw the late Mr McGuinness join in a toast to Her Majesty at a formal dinner at Windsor Castle during a state visit of Irish President Michael D Higgins to the UK.

Mr McGuinness also visited the battlefields of Flanders, which loom large in the collective memory of unionists, and paid tribute to the Irish soldiers who lost their lives in the carnage of the First World War.

During her trip to Dublin in 2011, the Queen also paid tribute to Ireland's First World War soldiers during a ceremony at the war memorial at Islandbridge.

She also laid a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance to those who fought for independence from Britain.

Yesterday's attendance by Mrs Foster at the Ulster Final in Clones was not the first time a senior DUP figure had attended a GAA match.

In 2008 Sports Minister Edwin Poots became the first minister from his party to attend a GAA game, at Pairc Esler in Newry. Four years later DUP leader Peter Robinson attended the Dr McKenna Cup Final between Derry and Tyrone at Athletic Grounds in Armagh, alongside Mr McGuinness.

Mrs Foster's presence yesterday was, however, the first time a DUP leader has attended the Ulster GAA Final. Her cross-border trip came just days after she reached out to Northern Ireland's Muslim community, joining the Eid al-Fitr celebrations marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

And it followed hard on the heels of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's trip to east Belfast earlier this month to tour the House of Orange.

Two weeks ago Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall toured Cork and Kerry, and during their visit met several senior Sinn Fein figures, among them Mary-Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill.

In Belfast earlier, Charles was also pictured grasping the hand of Gerry Kelly MLA, who was jailed in the 1970s for his part in the IRA bombing of London's Old Bailey.

Charles' great-uncle Lord Mountbatten, was murdered by the IRA in 1979. In 2015, he made a poignant pilgrimage to Mullaghmore, the Sligo harbour village close to where the bomb blew up Lord Mountbatten's fishing boat.

In another first for her party, Mrs Foster is to attend a Stormont reception for the LGBT community on Thursday.

The event has been organised by PinkNews, whose chief executive Benjamin Cohen said: "The decision by Arlene Foster to attend the first PinkNews event in Belfast is an important step towards encouraging a dialogue in Northern Ireland."

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