Foster-McGuinness split over Brexit widens

Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness together at Stormont last month
Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness together at Stormont last month

The gap between Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness over Brexit appears to be widening, despite an olive branch from the First Minister in the shape of a proposal for Northern Ireland to retain a “special relationship” with the EU.

A day after Mrs Foster pledged to work on behalf of everyone in Northern Ireland – irrespective of how they voted in the referendum – Mr McGuinness used rather undiplomatic language to refer to his partner in Stormont Castle.

Stating that he was “very connected” to the business community, the voluntary sector and the Province’s universities, Mr McGuinness said that there is “absolute alarm in all of those interest groups about where we’re at” and added: “If Arlene’s not getting that message, I don’t know what planet she’s living on.”

Mr McGuinness repeated Sinn Fein’s demand that Northern Ireland should remain within the EU because 56 per cent of voters here supported that option – despite the UK as a whole voting to leave.

The Sinn Fein veteran said that if the issue was brought before the Assembly he was “100 per cent confident” that he would win a vote.

He told BBC Radio Foyle’s Breakfast programme: “If it is put to the Assembly that we reject Brexit and see a future in Europe, I’m 100 per cent confident that we can deliver that in the Assembly – that no party in the Assembly will pass a vote which will see us move away from the democratically expressed wishes of the people, 56 per cent [of whom] voted to Remain...”

Responding to that, Mrs Foster was sceptical about whether a majority of the Assembly would vote for such a motion, and said that even if that were to happen it would not prevent the result of the UK referendum being implemented by the Government.

The previous day, speaking to the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, Mrs Foster stressed that she would represent the views of all Northern Ireland’s people – not just DUP voters or those who supported Brexit – in negotiations about what the post-EU future will look like.

The DUP leader said: “We are leaving the European Union – that is the reality. Now, what do we do to make the best out of that for the people of Northern Ireland?”

She did, however, suggest that there could be a “continuing special relationship” with the Republic and the EU and said it would be a “very good thing” for Northern Ireland to have good relations with the EU.

Mrs Foster did not elaborate on what such a unique relationship could entail, but it may involve some EU funding still being available to Northern Ireland because – unlike Great Britain – it would border the EU after Brexit.

On the same programme, new Secretary of State James Brokenshire was clear that although he campaigned to remain within the EU he believes there is a need to “respect” the UK-wide outcome.

The former Home Office junior minister said: “We’ve had the outcome of the referendum. I campaigned for Remain but I think we now need to move on, to get on, and to chart that really positive course for Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom as we look to that future outside of the European Union.”