DUP leader Arlene Foster attends GAA final

DUP leader Arlene Foster has described her attendance at a gaelic football final as taking step toward reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

Sunday, 24th June 2018, 2:01 pm
Updated Sunday, 24th June 2018, 7:23 pm
DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill at the Ulster final between Fermanagh and Donegal in Clones, Co Monaghan. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Mrs Foster was warmly applauded by GAA fans as she joined them in Clones, Co Monaghan, in the Irish Republic to watch her native Fermanagh play neighbouring county Donegal in the Ulster Final.

The former Stormont first minister became the first DUP leader to attend the showpiece event.

Mrs Foster said she was aware of the significance of her appearance at a game synonymous with the nationalist tradition. DUP ministers have attended GAA games before but none as high profile as the Ulster Final and none in the Irish Republic.

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DUP leader Arlene Foster is hoping for a Fermanagh win

Mrs Foster stood to pay respects to the Irish national anthem Amhran na bhFiann as it was played before kick off before taking her seat only a few away from Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill.

“I do realise that there might be some people who may be uncomfortable with me being here today on Sunday,” Mrs Foster said.

“But let me say this - I am a leader of a political party that wants to have a shared society in Northern Ireland and to do that you have to take steps forward and to do that we have to build a respect and tolerance and that’s what I want to do,” she said.

In an apparent reference to Sinn Fein, she added: “I hope that others take the chance to step forward as well and to understand and appreciate and tolerate another culture perhaps that isn’t theirs.”

DUP Leader Arlene Foster at the Ulster final between Fermanagh and Donegal in Clones, Co Monaghan, Ireland. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Sunday June 24, 2018. Mrs Foster's attendance at a game synonymous with the nationalist tradition marks another symbolic milestone in cross-community engagement in the region. See PA story ULSTER Final. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Mrs Foster’s hopes of a victory for her home county were dashed however, with Fermanagh suffering a heavy defeat.

Her appearance came ahead of another significant step next week when she will attend an LGBT event at Stormont.

The DUP has been much criticised by gay rights activists for its resistance to same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.

Mrs Foster arrived amid a tight security presence to be greeted by Irish culture minister Heather Humphreys.

Fermanagh fans who witnessed her arrival clapped as the DUP leader entered the stadium, with some shouting light-hearted comments of “Go on you girl” and “Come on Arlene”.

The was another positive reception when she briefly walked to the edge of the playing surface to field media questions before walking up the steps to take her seat in the main stand ahead of kick off.

She shook hands with Mrs O’Neill, who was sitting just behind her, and the Irish Government’s chief whip and Donegal TD Joe McHugh.

Mrs Foster and party colleague Christopher Stalford then stood with the rest of the sell-out crowd as the Irish national anthem was played.

High-profile Fermanagh born priest Brian D’Arcy said he was “absolutely delighted” at Mrs Foster’s attendance.

“It’s a big step for her and we appreciate that and Fermanagh people will definitely appreciate that,” he told the Press Association.

He said a tweet sent by the DUP leader welcoming the team’s semi-final victory over Monaghan had “broken the ice”.

“If you make the first step and you put the hand out, a lot of people will shake it,” he said.

He added: “Arlene doing this is showing herself to be not just a leader of a political party but actually a politician and we have remarkably few of those - so the more the better.”

Councillor Howard Thornton, the Ulster Unionist chairman of Fermanagh and Omagh Council also attended Sunday’s final in Clones.