On her first day as First Minister, Arlene Foster has said that the DUP will not shift from its “Christian values” on issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
In an interview with the News Letter in her new office at Stormont yesterday, Mrs Foster said she would offer “no apology” for saying that the DUP would continue to have “very strong Christian values”.
Mrs Foster also signalled that the DUP will “definitely” have a clear party line on whether to quit the European Union in the looming referendum, and said that as things stand she would vote to take the UK out of the EU.
Earlier, the Fermanagh MLA spoke in the Assembly chamber of her great pride at being the first woman in the almost 100-year history of Northern Ireland to be elevated to the position of First Minister.
The 45-year-old – who is also the youngest ever First Minister – said she wanted to “make sure that what is possible for me is possible for any young girl or boy growing up in Northern Ireland”.
Although Mrs Foster went out of her way to praise her predecessor, Peter Robinson, by describing him as the “most astute” politician in the history of Northern Ireland, there has been a striking shift in the tone of the DUP since Mrs Foster took over as party leader last month.
Do you trust Martin McGuinness? “I trust him to be a republican.”Arlene Foster
Yesterday Mrs Foster continued that change of tact, agreeing to be interviewed by the News Letter and the Irish News, two newspapers to which Mr Robinson had latterly been refusing to speak.
The subtle change in how the DUP speaks was also clear in how Mrs Foster answered the question about whether she would consider giving DUP MLAs a free vote on social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion.
“It’s not something that’s at the top of my ‘in tray’ if you like,” she said.
“Obviously it’s not on the agenda in terms of a vote coming up any time soon. We will of course look at that when it does come up. But our position in relation to those issues has not changed by my coming in.”
Mrs Foster was careful to stress that “just because we believe in the traditional view of marriage doesn’t mean that we denigrate anyone who doesn’t agree with that - not in any one way, nor will we under my leadership be discriminating against anyone in terms of their sexuality or their way of life or whatever you may want to say”.
However, she made clear: “It doesn’t mean that we’ll be moving away from the traditional view in relation to marriage.”
When asked if traditional views on issues such as marriage and abortion was a core part of the party’s identity, she said: “The DUP is – and we make no apology for this – founded on very strong Christian values as you know. We as a party will continue to have those very strong Christian values and part of that is in and around the traditional view in terms of marriage.”
Mrs Foster said that she did not think that even if there was a free vote on those issues a single DUP MLA would take a different stance. She added: “I say that from having had conversations with MLAs over this issue now on about five occasions it has come before the house - whilst I can understand journalists would be interested in the semantics of free vote or whip I don’t think it’s going to make any difference [to how MLAs vote] to be honest.”
When asked if she trusts Martin McGuinness, Mrs Foster said: “I trust him to be a republican and I certainly trust that he will always look at things from the prism of republicanism. And he knows that I will look at things from the prism of what’s right for Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.”
One of the reasons behind Mrs Foster’s unhappiness in the UUP after the Belfast Agreement was the continued presence of Sinn Fein in the Executive as the IRA stalled on decommissioning its weapons. In 2004, Mrs Foster wrote that it was “absolutely imperative for the survival of any real and meaningful settlement” that there was transparent decommissioning.
When asked about those views now in the context of October’s Government report which says that the IRA retains weaponry, Mrs Foster said: “You can’t talk about what happened in 2004 and here we are...12 years later in 2016 looking at the progress that has been made; and there has been progress.”
Mrs Foster said that she had always objected to the “constructive ambiguity” of the Belfast Agreement which meant that important issues were not tied down.
She said she could understand why the negotiators did not tie that issue down, but added: “If you don’t tie things down, then it will come back. And one of those issues was in and around decommissioning. Now what we have done in relation to Fresh Start is to set out a very clear agenda to deal with paramilitarism and criminality because it hasn’t been dealt with - let’s be honest about that with the general public - and those task forces will take issues forward.
“It has been a scourge - on both communities, on republican communities and on loyalist communities in relation to paramilitarism.”
When asked if Sinn Fein’s place in the Executive was in any sort of jeopardy as a result of the fact that the IRA has not decommissioned all its weapons, Mrs Foster said: “It’s all part of dealing with paramilitarism and criminality and that’s why it was important to have Sinn Fein sign up to that in the Fresh Start and if you look at the wording in and around the Fresh Start they have signed up absolutely to dealing with all of those issues.”
Pressed on whether she would like to see a timetable for the completion of decommissioning, she said: “Well, I mean, decommissioning has to be dealt with and should have been dealt with way, way back. Anybody that is found with arms that are of a nature that have been used in the past or can be used in the future should face the full rigour of the law and that’s the way we should deal with decommissioning now.”
A major policy decision looming for Mrs Foster will be on which side to take in the UK referendum on membership of the European Union – which could be just months away.
When asked if she would vote to leave the EU as things stand, the First Minister said: “Certainly as things stand, that would be my position. We will of course wait and see - it’s not right to pre-judge what’s going to happen in relation to the Prime Minister’s negotiations [but] I have to say that he’s not asking for very much.
“His bargaining isn’t at its height as far as I’m concerned - he should have been looking for more. However, we will not prejudge what happens in relation to the negotiations...then we’ll make our decision. It’s no surprise that we are a Eurosceptic party.”
However, Mrs Foster was very clear that unlike the Conservative Party which will allow its ministers to campaign either to leave the EU or to stay in the EU, the DUP will “definitely take a position” as a party.