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Let’s be good neighbours, says Arlene Foster as she steps down as First Minister while taking swipe at Edwin Poots

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Screengrab taken from the Northern Ireland Assembly of Arlene Foster formally announcing her resignation as First Minister in the chamber of the NI Assembly at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast. PA Photo.

Screengrab taken from the Northern Ireland Assembly of Arlene Foster formally announcing her resignation as First Minister in the chamber of the NI Assembly at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast. PA Photo.

PA

Screengrab taken from the Northern Ireland Assembly of Arlene Foster formally announcing her resignation as First Minister in the chamber of the NI Assembly at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast. PA Photo.

Arlene Foster chose her words carefully as she formally stood down as Northern Ireland's First Minister on Monday, taking aim at her opponents and reflecting on her career in equal measure.

With her stepping down, however, there are storm clouds on the horizon, with Sinn Fein warning they would not nominate a Deputy First Minister without a parallel Irish language act being introduced.

Following her unceremonious ousting as party leader last month, Mrs Foster took to the floor of the Assembly to deliver her farewell speech, opening with the promise that she would not sing, as she did in delivering a few lines of Frank Sinatra's That's Life at last week's meeting of the British-Irish Council.

She joked that she had been advised to deliver her speech like Father Ted Crilly, when he settled old scores with opponents after receiving the Golden Cleric award, however, "after a moment of reflection, I thought perhaps not... suffice to say, just like all politicians who resign I will now spend more time with my family”.

The outgoing First Minister took a swipe at new DUP leader Edwin Poots, who, upon taking the role of First Minister in 2016, said her "most important job" remained "that of a wife, mother, and daughter".

"My lovely mum, my darling husband and my three beloved children will see more of me — whether they like it or not," she said.

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"It's just as well, Mr Speaker, I am such a good daughter, wife and mother. Those of us in public life know that we cannot fully function without the support of our loved ones and I've had that support in abundance.

"I wish my successors as party leader and First Minister well, and I want to thank politicians from across the political spectrum for their good wishes.

"I've been overwhelmed — even some in the naughty corner found something good to say. If only you had said all those nice things a few years ago, it would have saved us all time."

She paid tribute to society coming together throughout the pandemic and said she believe strongly "in the good sense of the people of Northern Ireland to continue to recognise the value of our place within the United Kingdom”.

Touching on the RHI scandal, which led to the three-year collapse of Stormont, she said: "When faced with false allegations of corruption, I defended myself vigorously to clear my name.

"No-one should have to tolerate such assaults on their character, but misleading interviews and salacious claims that would not survive the glare of an inquiry created a febrile atmosphere that coincided with the declining health of Martin McGuinness.

"The result: a crisis that led to the unnecessary loss of devolution. Lost years for Northern Ireland and a period when public services inevitably slumped backwards."

On the Irish language and identity, Mrs Foster said "too often" a demand to advance these issues in the language of equality "saw simultaneous calls to reduce or denigrate other forms of expression”.

"This was always a destabilising approach in a society seeking healing, and risked simply creating a new dispossessed community. This cycle needed to be broken.

"This is why my team and I sought and secured a cultural package that would see a range of measures to advance identities and protect them for future generations. This is the only model for success not one step forward for some and one step back for others."

She also spoke of the outgoing controversy over the Northern Ireland Protocol, stating the relations between the UK and Ireland and the UK and EU are "out of balance".

"An imbalance created by the (Northern Ireland) Protocol," she said. "It is not a real partnership. An imbalance and an instability is built in that will fester and deteriorate. If Brussels continues to think the Protocol is enough, they are in denial," she said.

"Imbalance and instability in the context of Northern Ireland is a truly dangerous cocktail. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and needs to be treated as such."

In concluding her remarks, the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA spoke of the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan.

"I'm sure we have all heard it, but remember two people passed by. They closed their eyes to the injured Jewish man," she said.

"I haven't always made the right calls. None of us are perfect but at the end of the parable our Lord asks 'Who is your neighbour?' the one who stopped to offer help.

"Remember stopping meant the Samaritan reaching out across a religious divide. It also meant him reaching into his own pocket and paying a price to provide shelter for the injured man.

"Let's be good neighbours... over and out."

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill paid tribute to her Executive colleague.

"Being in public life, as we all know, isn't an easy job. It can be very challenging and there are many highs and many lows," she said.

"For a female in public life it is even more challenging. Sacrifices are made and we have to deal with the additional burden of misogyny that exists.

"If there is one thing we have done well together, it is highlight that on numerous occasions."

Edwin Poots said that "history will be kind" to Arlene Foster and congratulated her on her "hugely successful" career.

"I believe history will be very kind to Arlene, it should be very kind to her because she has done a considerable course of work in ensuring that we move forward,” he said.

"Even after the difficult times of 2017 with the collapse of devolution, the commitment was there, and always there to ensure that we could get back together again, that we could take people forward again. And they could ensure that the public had this place to make decisions for them on their behalf."

Mr Poots described Mrs Foster as a unionist and also a devolutionist.

"She, like I, was a child of the Troubles, and had a similar circumstance in that the Troubles visited our homes," he said.

"For Arlene, I believe having peace in Northern Ireland and ensuring that we have peace and that we have a way of working with each other was a powerful part of what she done in her politics and what she sought to ensure in her politics, and in leading her to work with people who would have been regarded as enemies."

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis described Mrs Foster as a "truly dedicated public servant".

"It is now essential that the transition to new leadership is as smooth as possible, and I have encouraged both the DUP and Sinn Fein to ensure that their nominations for First Minister and Deputy First Minister are put forward in good time," he added.

"The people of Northern Ireland need strong political leadership. It is paramount that there remains a functioning Executive that is able to work in the best interests of all the people and communities of Northern Ireland, delivering on the issues that matter to them most."

The Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, the Most Reverend John McDowell, said he has known outgoing First Minister for years, both as a senior politician and as a member of the Church of Ireland in the Diocese of Clogher, when he was Bishop there.

"In both capacities, I have admired Mrs Foster’s commitment to her vocation as a political figure and as a diligent member of her parish," he said.

“The vocation of a politician is one of immense complexity, nowhere more so that in a divided society like Northern Ireland. The demands of high office mean that much else is sacrificed by way of leisure and family commitments. I trust and pray that Arlene will have more time to employ her many talents in other contexts, but still with the appetite for the service of others which she has shown throughout her career.”


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