Northern Ireland

Arlene Foster calls for close Irish relations post-Brexit

Arlene Foster Image copyright RTÉ
Image caption Arlene Foster was speaking at the Killarney Economic Conference in County Kerry

DUP leader Arlene Foster has said that the futures of Northern Ireland and the Republic will still be closely connected after Brexit.

She was speaking at the Killarney Economic Conference in County Kerry.

Mrs Foster told the audience that Brexit was not about "building a wall and cutting ourselves off from our nearest neighbours".

Her speech set out her vision of north-south relations during the Brexit process.

Her words struck a more conciliatory tone after the ongoing Brexit negotiations strained relations between her party and the Irish government.

'Learn lessons'

Last November, Mrs Foster accused Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Leo Varadkar of being "reckless" during "critical" phase one Brexit negotiations.

She was responding to a suggestion by Mr Varadkar that Brexit could jeopardise Northern Ireland's peace process.

On Saturday, she said that "we must learn lessons" from how phase one negotiations were handled.

"The atmosphere going forward needs to improve and, in particular, negotiators need to be careful not to rush for the microphones at the first opportunity."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

However, she added that it was "not in our interests to the see the Republic of Ireland do anything other than prosper".

"We will continue to have our own identities and, for our part, will no longer be members of the European Union, but our futures will still be closely connected," she said.

She acknowledged that the "bulk of views expressed about how Brexit will shape the future of politics on this island has been underpinned by a sense of concern" and that she understood those concerns even if she did not share them.

"We absolutely don't want to see the creation of a hard border on the island of Ireland," she added.

'Shared interest'

She also said that the Republic was an "incredibly valuable market" for Northern Ireland businesses but that Great Britain remained Northern Ireland's "biggest external market".

Mrs Foster said maintaining "barrier-free access to the Great Britain market" while having a "frictionless border" with the Republic would require "novel solutions".

She also advocated an increased role for the British-Irish Council in maintaining relations and working together "on issues of shared interest" post-Brexit.

She added: "We must accept the reality of the referendum result, refrain from the continued refighting of the referendum, and seek the sensible, mutually beneficial outcomes from the complex negotiation process ahead that will serve us all well."

'Different in tone'

Sinn Féin's northern leader, Michelle O'Neill, said Mrs Foster's statement was "different in tone, but not policy".

"I welcome the acknowledgement by Arlene Foster in Killarney today that our economy, community, and future, north and south, are interlinked and interdependent," she said.

"However, this cannot distract from the fact that Brexit will be disastrous for all of Ireland. There is no good Brexit.

"The DUP need to put the interests of all our people before party, and set aside the Brexit blank cheque they issued to the Tories as part of their supply and confidence agreement."

The UK and the EU struck a deal in December that ended phase one of Brexit talks.

Issues around the Irish border were a major stumbling block in concluding a deal, with the DUP vetoing an initial agreement over concessions on the border.

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