Belfast Telegraph

I want to have a shared society, and to do that you have to take steps, Arlene Foster declares as she joins crowds at Ulster GAA final

By Jane Scott

Her home county of Fermanagh may have been beaten by neighbours Donegal, but Arlene Foster's attendance at her first GAA Ulster Final yesterday - and the rapturous reception she enjoyed - meant that community relations was the real winner.

While she didn't prove to be Fermanagh's lucky charm on the day, the DUP leader smiled and clapped as Donegal captain Michael Murphy lifted the Anglo-Celt Cup after his side's victory over the Erne County.

Fermanagh had been aiming to win their first provincial title ever, but instead it was Donegal who emerged as comfortable 12-point winners at sun-kissed Clones in Co Monaghan. Their manager Rory Gallagher later acknowledged that his side had "been beaten by a better team" on the day.

The neighbouring counties have met seven times in the past 10 years but yesterday was their first head-to-head in Ulster's showpiece game.

There was a media scrum and a heavy security presence at the gates of St Tiernach's Park as a smiling Mrs Foster arrived at around 1.30pm, accompanied by South Belfast DUP MLA Christopher Stalford.

As she was welcomed by the Republic's Business Minister and TD for Cavan-Monaghan Heather Humphreys, Mrs Foster said: "All we need now is a Fermanagh win."

Arlene Foster first DUP leader to attend Ulster GAA final

In the end Donegal proved too strong for her fellow Ernesiders, winning by 2-18 to 0-12.

Hours beforehand, Fermanagh Street in the Co Monaghan town was a sea of green, yellow and white as the near-capacity crowd of 28,780 made their way to the game.

Speaking as she arrived, Mrs Foster said she understood the significance of her attendance.

"Of course it's not my first time in Clones, I grew up not so very far away from here. But it is my first time at St Tiernach's Park and I want to say a big thank you to the Ulster Council of the GAA for the very warm welcome that I've received," she said.

"Of course it's such a beautiful day as well and it adds to the spectacle and the occasion.

"I do realise that there might be some people who may be uncomfortable with me being here today, on a Sunday, but let me say this: I am a leader of a political party that wants to have a shared society in Northern Ireland and to do that you have to take steps.

"To do that we also have to build a respect and a tolerance, and that's what I want to do."

And in an apparent reference to Sinn Fein, the former First Minister added: "I hope that others will take the chance to step forward as well and to understand, appreciate and tolerate another culture perhaps that isn't theirs."

Mrs Foster also met with Ulster GAA president Michael Hasson amid cheers of "Come on Arlene" around the ground. She was applauded and cheered by GAA fans as she took her seat moments before the 2pm throw-in. She was seated just behind Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O'Neill, with the two shaking hands and chatting ahead of the throw-in.

Mrs Foster stood as the Irish national anthem Amhran na bhFiann, was played with Ms Humphreys on one side and Donegal TD Joe McHugh on the other. Seated nearby were Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew and the Ulster Unionist chairman of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, Howard Thornton.

Ms Humphreys described Mrs Foster's visit as "a symbolic moment in cross-community engagement". Mrs O'Neill also welcomed it, saying that "the GAA family" is much more than a sporting organisation.

She added: "I along with other Sinn Fein leaders met recently with Prince Charles in order to demonstrate our desire to reach out and respect those across our community of a unionist and British identity.

"We recognise the important significance of Arlene Foster as DUP leader attending today's Ulster final and acknowledge and very much welcome her decision to do so. She has encouraged others to step forward as well to understand, appreciate and respect another culture perhaps that isn't theirs in the context of building an inclusive society.

"There is an onus on all in political leadership to build on these recent initiatives and do more together if we want to be successful in bringing about a society underpinned by inclusion."

The historic moment followed weeks of speculation as to whether or not the DUP leader would attend the game in Clones, particularly after her recent meeting with the Fermanagh team in Enniskillen. Her post-training session visit to county board officials and players with a good luck card last weekend, where she received a team jersey in return, went down well.

Her appearance at yesterday's game was welcomed by another famous Fermanagh face in the crowd, Enniskillen-born actor Adrian Dunbar.

"It's a very good gesture of Arlene's to come here today on a fabulous occasion when a lot of people have come home from places like Canada, the US and Australia," he commented.

High-profile Fermanagh born priest Fr Brian D'Arcy said he was "absolutely delighted" at Mrs Foster's attendance.

"It's a big step for her and we appreciate that and Fermanagh people will definitely appreciate that," he remarked.

He said a tweet sent by the DUP leader welcoming the team's semi-final victory over Monaghan had "broken the ice".

"If you make the first step and you put the hand out, a lot of people will shake it. Arlene doing this is showing herself to be not just a leader of a political party, but actually a politician, and we have remarkably few of those - so the more the better," he added.

DUP ministers have attended GAA games before but none as high-profile as the Ulster Final or in the Republic.

While Mrs Foster's gesture was widely welcomed, TUV leader Jim Allister criticised her presence at the game.

He tweeted: "Off shortly to annual service in Kells & Connor to honour the sacrifice and work of the UDR in Co Antrim. Much more fitting for a Sunday than pandering to the GAA."

Mrs Foster's attendance comes ahead of another first as she is due at an LGBT event in Stormont this Thursday.

And earlier this month she marked the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan during a visit organised by the Belfast Islamic Centre.

Belfast Telegraph

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