‘Northern Ireland is British’ – Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill and DUP’s Arlene Foster clash in ‘British or Irish’ exchange at Tory conference
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‘Northern Ireland is British’ – Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill and DUP’s Arlene Foster clash in ‘British or Irish’ exchange at Tory conference

SINN Féin have clashed with the DUP at a Conservative Party conference event over whether Northern Ireland is ‘British or Irish’.

Asked if Sinn Féin backed legislation to make Northern Ireland appear more Irish, the party’s leader in the region, Michelle O’Neill, said both British and Irish identities should be protected.

She added: "The North isn't British".

But DUP leader Arlene Foster responded by saying: “I don’t want this to turn into a row, but Northern Ireland is British”.

The Ulster Fry event on the conference fringe was a rare joint appearance by the two women.

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One Tory activist told the pair he hoped they would become known as the “Chuckle Sisters” – a reference to the Chuckle Brothers nickname given to the relatively warm relationship between the late Ian Paisley and the Martin McGuinness.

Ms O’Neill added: “I am Irish, Arlene considers herself British and that’s part of the challenge we face.

“The British Government should not think that they can cobble together a deal acceptable to the DUP and then shoe-horn Sinn Fein into acquiescing to it.

“That will not happen. The shape of a deal is very clear. The two Governments know this. So do the DUP and the other parties.”

Speaking at the event in Manchester’s Town Hall, Mrs Foster insisted that the DUP’s coalition with the Theresa May’s government was “not a distraction” from negotiations in Northern Ireland.

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She said “solid progress” had been made in talks to restore a power-sharing government in Belfast but that “differences do remain”.

Mrs Foster warned that “decision time is soon upon us” as the prospect of a return to direct rule from Westminster continues to loom large.

The British Government warned last month that it will have to step in to pass a budget in Northern Ireland by the end of October if power-sharing is not restored at Stormont.

Mrs O’Neill said an agreement “must be reached” on an Irish Language Act – the main sticking point in the negotiations – but Arlene Foster said any deal must be acceptable to both republicans and unionists.

Asked whether she had made any mistakes in her dealings with Sinn Féin as DUP leader, Mrs Foster said: “Anybody who looks back at their life and doesn’t say ‘Oh, I should have done that in a different way’ would be telling you a lie.

“I don’t think I was high-handed but, of course, it’s for others to decide if I was or not.”

Pressed on whether the DUP leader should stand aside to allow a deal to be reached, Michelle O’Neill appeared to back her rival.

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Ms O’Neill explained that until all outstanding issues have been dealt with at Stormont, Northern Ireland “will never get to a position of Arlene standing aside”.