Arlene Foster distances herself from Sammy Wilson description of Robin Swann as ‘acting like a poodle’

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster has distanced herself from comments from an MP accusing the health minister of “acting like a poodle”.

Arlene Foster
Arlene Foster

Mrs Foster also made it clear on Thursday evening that she and the DUP have full confidence in the region’s chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride.

Sammy Wilson’s tweet came amid tension between the DUP and other parties over a phased approach to the reopening of schools.

The DUP is urging Stormont Executive colleagues to revisit the plan for only primary school children in P1 to P3 to return on March 8.

In England, all pupils are to return on March 8.

Health Minister Robin Swann has remained committed to a phased reopening.

Chief medical officer (CMO) Dr Michael McBride has insisted he is not at odds with other UK CMOs on his approach to schools reopening.

Earlier Mr Wilson accused Mr Swann of acting like a “poodle for the unaccountable chief medical officer”.

Mrs Foster said she has “full confidence” in Dr McBride, saying he has “worked tirelessly to bring us impartial advice”.

“Michael retains and will have my full confidence and that of my party,” she added.

Mrs Foster said there is a genuine desire to have a debate about the need to get young people back to school, but said Mr Wilson’s tweet was “certainly not language I would have used”.

“That’s a discussion we had today, it was a very good discussion around data and around the differences in different jurisdictions and transmissibility,” she said.

“It’ll not surprise anyone to know that there is a difference of opinion in the Executive about how quickly we should try and get young people back to school … so we have to try and find consensus.”

She added: “I think sometimes tweets would be better to be typed out, and then deleted.”

Also speaking in a press conference after a meeting of the Executive, deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill described Mr Wilson’s comments as “disgraceful”.

“I would totally disassociate myself in any way from that,” she said.

“I think that needs to be called out, certainly at political leadership level for being wrong.

“You have to have a robust exchange at times, however there’s no room for being disrespectful.

“Certainly in this instance I think the comments were totally uncalled for.”

Standing alongside Ms O’Neill however, Mrs Foster said Mr Wilson was “not the only person this week to refer to people as dogs”, in an apparent reference to comments by the Sinn Fein vice president around Brexit describing unionists as “dogs chasing their tails”.

“But we’ll not go into that,” she added.

The Executive last week agreed a phased approach to the reopening of schools.

However, Mrs Foster called this week for that decision to be revisited.

DUP education minister Peter Weir claimed Northern Ireland risks treating its children as second-class citizens if it does not accelerate the pace of school reopening.

Under the plan, only primary school children in P1 to P3 will return on March 8.

Secondary school children in key exam years – years 12-14 – will return two weeks later.

On that date, P1 to P3 will revert to remote learning for another week.

No date has been given for the return of the wider school population.

Mr Wilson tweeted on Thursday morning: “The Health Minister needs to show some political independence and start acting as a politician rather than a poodle for the unaccountable chief medical officer.”

Mr Swann responded on Twitter. “If I had to chose (sic), I would have always considered myself more of a Jack Russell.”