Northern Ireland

DUP and Sinn Féin clash on identity at Tory conference

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Media captionThe DUP and Sinn Fein leaders disagreed on the role Northern Ireland should have after the UK leaves the EU

A claim by Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill that Northern Ireland "isn't British" has been described as "ludicrous" by DUP leader Arlene Foster.

They clashed over Northern Ireland's identity and its future role in Europe at the Conservative Party conference.

"The North isn't British," Mrs O'Neill said, when asked if an Irish language act would make it less British.

Mrs Foster told the same audience she did not want to turn the event into a row, "but Northern Ireland is British".

The DUP leader claimed Ms O'Neill's comment was a "ludicrous thing to say" because the 1998 Good Friday Agreement had underlined the principle of consent.

Speaking at the Ulster Fry breakfast event at the Manchester conference, the two leaders also disagreed on the role Northern Ireland should have after the UK leaves the EU.

Mrs Foster later told BBC News NI the overall tone of Ms O'Neill's speech had been "quite aggressive" and could have been made in March, as opposed to the middle of October.

Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since January, when a coalition led by the DUP and Sinn Fein collapsed after a series of rows.

Mrs O'Neill, who replaced the late Martin McGuinness as Sinn Fein's leader in Stormont, told Reuters a power-sharing agreement could be reached within weeks.

'No internal barriers'

The DUP leader told BBC News NI the Stormont talks were "coming to the end game", and estimated they would continue for "a week to 10 days at the most".

Mrs Foster said she would continue to work to bring about devolution, but if an agreement could not be reached, the secretary of state would have to take over the government of Northern Ireland.

On the issue of Brexit, Mrs O'Neill said there should be special EU status for Northern Ireland, but the DUP leader said Northern Ireland would leave the EU in line with the rest of the UK.

Mrs Foster said she was not overly concerned about a European Parliament resolution that presumed Northern Ireland would remain in the Single Market and the Customs Union.

She described the European Parliament's approach as "overly simplistic" and repeated that there could be no future internal barriers within the UK.

'Solid progress'

Both leaders said a deal to restore devolution at Stormont was possible, but highlighted the stumbling blocks involved.

Mrs Foster said in recent days discussions had intensified and "solid progress" had been made, but she told the audience in Manchester Town Hall that "differences remain".

She repeated her party's position that the Irish language "was not a threat to the union", but stressed that there could not be a "one-sided deal".

Mrs Foster would not be drawn on whether two linked acts - one covering Irish and the other Ulster Scots - might provide the basis for a compromise.

She repeated that the DUP was not convinced of the need for a free-standing Irish language act and added that, in any deal, "no one culture has dominance".

Image caption The Ulster Fry event was organised by the CHAMP charity to publicise developments in Northern Ireland

For her part, Mrs O'Neill said Sinn Fein would not be "shoe-horned" into a power-sharing deal cobbled together by the government to appease to the DUP.

Speaking at her maiden Conservative Party conference, Mrs O'Neill said the DUP deal to prop up the Conservatives posed "real challenges".

"A political breakthrough is entirely possible, but only we can together grasp the opportunity to guarantee the right of every citizen to their democratic social, economic, civil and political rights," she said.

She added that this included:

  • An Irish language act
  • The right to access coroners' inquests
  • Equal marriage
  • A bill of rights
  • A commitment to tackle sectarianism

'Coming down the track'

The event was also attended by Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire, who warned that if a deal were not struck soon he would legislate for a budget at Westminster.

That was "coming down the track quite rapidly", he added.

UUP leader Robin Swann said he found the event "depressing".

"What I heard this morning was not exactly hopeful or positive," he told BBC News NI.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption It is the first Conservative conference since the DUP-Tory pact was signed in June

Mr Swann said he thought the mood music in Belfast was positive, and he thought the Manchester event had "taken us back nearly six months".

Mrs Foster met the prime minister after the breakfast event, and her party is to host a conference event this evening, for the second consecutive year.

Northern Ireland's power-sharing executive collapsed in January, and progress in the ongoing talks will be among the topics discussed.

It is the first Conservative conference since the DUP and the Conservatives agreed their confidence-and-supply deal at Westminster.

Mrs Foster said that June's election was an historic one for the DUP, which had given the party significant opportunities, but that "London will not be a distraction" from what the party needed to do in Belfast.

"It is not a choice for the DUP between influence in London and executive power in Belfast," she said.

"What will deliver the most for Northern Ireland is both operating in tandem and that has been, is and will be, our goal until it is realised."

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