Personal Statement from the First Minister Arlene Foster

Assembly Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 pm on 14th June 2021.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 12:00 pm, 14th June 2021

I received a letter from the First Minister, the Rt Hon Arlene Foster, notifying me of her resignation, under section 16B of the NI Act 1998, with effect from 1.00 pm today, 14 June 2021. Mrs Foster also sought leave to make a statement, and I will call her shortly. However, before doing so, I am sure that Members will want me to convey the Assembly's best wishes to her as she leaves the office of First Minister.

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. As you said, I have tendered my resignation as First Minister of Northern Ireland, effective from 1.00 pm today. I thank you and your office for the opportunity to address the Chamber one last time, and I promise not to sing.

[Laughter.]

Colleagues inside and outside the House know very well that all periods of leadership must come to an end. That is why, when we are privileged and, indeed, honoured to hold such a position, we must not waste a moment in frivolous brinkmanship but forge ahead on behalf of those whom we represent.

Whilst I will miss the exchanges from this seat, I look forward to fresh challenges. This will be my last speech in this forum, but I plan to continue to speak up on behalf of women in public life, as well as our children, by seeking better protections for everyone on social media. When I was at school, bullying occurred, but when children stepped off the bus, their home was a safe place. Today, our young people have no escape. The bullies follow them right into their bedroom, and we must act.

A former Member of the House said to me last week that my closing speech should be in the style of Father Ted Crilly when he received the Golden Cleric award. However, after a moment of reflection, I thought perhaps not. Some of the younger faces here will be puzzled by who Father Ted was and even more puzzled by the name of the award. Suffice to say that, just like all politicians who resign, I will now spend more time with my family. My lovely mum, my darling husband and my three beloved children will see more of me, whether they like it or not.

[Laughter.]

It is just as well that I am such a good daughter, wife and mother. Those of us in public life know that we cannot fully function without the support of our loved ones, and I have had that support in abundance.

I wish my successors as party leader and First Minister well. I thank politicians from right across the political spectrum for their good wishes. I have been overwhelmed: even some in the naughty corner found something good to say. If only we had said all those nice things two years ago, it would have saved us a lot of time.

My reflections today will be broader more than personal, with an eye to the future of the Assembly and Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. My time as Northern Ireland's First Minister may have come to a close abruptly, but I remain someone with a passion for service, Northern Ireland and the Union. This particular chapter may be closing, but I intend to write some more in the years ahead, for I have unfinished business to ensure that Northern Ireland succeeds in its new century. I believe strongly in the good sense of the people of Northern Ireland to continue to recognise the value of our place in the United Kingdom as a distinctive and integral element of that union of nations. That UK has seen us through the worst ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic with unprecedented financial support, our incomparable National Health Service and a national vaccination programme that is the envy of the rest of the world.

As you are aware, Mr Speaker, I was first elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2003. Since then, I have had the great privilege to be a representative of Fermanagh and South Tyrone: my home constituency and somewhere, with its diverse population and beautiful countryside, of which I am tremendously proud. I was pleased to show it off one last time as First Minister when the deputy First Minister and I hosted the British-Irish Council (BIC) meeting on Friday past. In 2007, when devolution returned, I was appointed Minister of the Environment, and, from there, I went on to become Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. It was a role that I loved, as it allowed me to speak positively about, and be an advocate for, Northern Ireland across the world. The highlight was 2012, when we showcased Northern Ireland during the Our Time Our Place campaign. Transforming Invest Northern Ireland, building up our tourism industry, inviting international investors to come to Northern Ireland, and creating more and better jobs for our young people are all achievements that I look back on with pride.

Oscar Wilde, who was educated in Fermanagh at Portora Royal School, suggested:

"a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world."

Throughout my time in Enterprise and since, I have continuously been impressed by the ingenuity, innovation and aspiration of all our people, but especially our young people. I say this to those potential young leaders: hold on to your dreams, because, by doing so, you are halfway there.

I was appointed to the Finance and Personnel Ministry in 2015 and then, in January 2016, became First Minister of Northern Ireland, which is something that a little girl growing up in Fermanagh could scarcely have countenanced. I trust that my contribution has served as an encouragement to others, and the role of females in public life is something that I will continue to champion.

Following the 2016 Assembly election, I agreed a joint statement for the newly elected Executive with the then deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness. That was commonly described as a joint commitment to getting down to business. It was a statement of intent to focus on the issues of common concern rather than on the wedges that can divide and to show once and for all that devolution could deliver change, not just more of the same. It is my deepest regret that the opportunity to fulfil that purpose was denied by a series of events. When faced with false allegations of corruption, I defended myself vigorously to clear my name. No one should have to tolerate such assaults on their character, but misleading interviews and salacious claims that would not survive the glare of an inquiry created a febrile atmosphere that coincided with the declining health of Martin McGuinness. The result? A crisis that led to the unnecessary loss of devolution. Those were lost years for Northern Ireland, and it was a period when public services inevitably slumped backwards. Alongside ongoing negotiations to restore devolution, where no sign of a workable agreement was evident, we secured the Democratic Unionist Party's confidence-and-supply agreement to help fill the political vacuum and public-service consequences.

Over £1 billion extra in resources was provided in those years in key areas such as health, education and jobs, but the solutions that it provided and the difficulties that it mitigated were still outstripped by the problems from having no functioning Assembly or Executive.

That confidence-and-supply agreement will leave a legacy but also highlights our challenges. Some £150 million has been rolled out via Project Stratum to bring broadband to rural areas and leave Northern Ireland as the best-connected region in Europe. When it is completed, the project will be transformational to our economy. We ensured that the purse strings were loosened by the Treasury to enable £500 million to be used to help shared housing and education schemes. We delivered £50 million over five years to help mental health. I note that that money has been critical in recent announcements by the Health Minister. Mental health must be a priority for the House because it touches all of us.

For all those like me who queue along the Westlink each morning, there was £160 million funding to build the York Street interchange. Yet, like too many projects, it has been tied up in legal wrangles. Too many infrastructure projects are being swallowed up in the courts. We need to improve the expertise in infrastructure delivery. We need better infrastructure for the next generation, but key projects being delayed by 10-plus years is unsustainable.

The confidence-and-supply agreement delivered a ring-fenced £200 million for transformation projects in our health service. That money was used just in advance of the pandemic and, undoubtedly, helped to bolster the health service. Rather than just spending more money, we need to dedicate money to look solely at how the health service can do things better. That must continue.

The long and tortuous negotiations between 2017 and 2020 ultimately delivered the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement. Any agreement involves compromises but NDNA had two central pillars that, I believe, remain important: ambition for devolution and a new cultural deal. The breadth and depth of issues that NDNA set us all to deliver on would have been enough to fill an entire term or perhaps more, let alone two years of government. However, we had much to make up for from the lost years. We needed to use the momentum of a new agreement to push Northern Ireland forward as quickly as we could to get down to business.

However, once again, events intervened. As we restarted devolution, the new and deadly COVID virus was beginning to spread and would sweep across the entire world. It was an unprecedented challenge for us all at every level and in every aspect of our lives, but it was a challenge that we needed to face up to and rise to together. As we gradually emerged from its shadow, we began to raise our eyes to how we could drive the COVID recovery forward, with much of what we set out in NDNA being relevant. The opportunity to contribute directly and lead that recovery will be for others.

The second core component of NDNA is the new cultural deal. The issues of culture and identity have been a running sore through the past few decades, which is why a cultural package was needed in order to move forward comprehensively and sustainably. I repeat that it is a cultural package: far too many in the Assembly and outside it present its content as one-dimensional, when it never was and never could be. That contributes to a negative and unhelpful public discourse when we have proposals to advance all. Too often, a demand to advance Irish identity and the language of equality saw simultaneous calls to reduce or denigrate other forms of expression. That was always a destabilising approach in a society that is seeking healing. It risks simply creating a new dispossessed community. The cycle needs to be broken. That is why my team and I sought and secured a cultural package that would see a range of measures to advance identities and protect them for future generations. That was the only model for success — not one step forward for some and one step back for others. That will be the basis for sharing this place that we all cherish and take pride in.

The package includes an office of identity and cultural expression and an Ulster-British commissioner, underpinned by legislation. It includes support to celebrate, commemorate and reflect on Northern Ireland's centenary. It sees legal and institutional protections for veterans. It includes harmonisation of flag days. It will build for the future with the Castlereagh Foundation. It includes new and broader investment for Ulster-Scots broadcasting, and, yes, it also includes a commissioner for the Irish language.

The recommendations of the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition (FICT) are to be taken forward as well. I encourage all of you to do all of it, to take it forward in its totality and to speak of and implement it as one complete, independent package: a new cultural deal for Northern Ireland's new century.

Let us realise in every corner of the House that people live here who have an Irish identity or a British identity and there are some who have a British and an Irish identity. Some are British and Northern Irish, and new identities are emerging, but, for all of us, this is a place called home. We can poke each other in the eye and have a competition of "My identity is better than yours", but it is only by respecting each other's identity that we will move forward. The beauty of the Union is that we can have all our identities and live here side by side.

My last major event was, as I said, the British-Irish Council, hosted in my home county of Fermanagh. Those who attended got to see its beauty and to enjoy its warm welcome. The BIC is built on equal recognition and respect for a range of political institutions across the British Isles. Each is given their place, each voice is valued and each makes their contribution, and the balance is what makes it work. Sadly, broader politics in Northern Ireland — between the UK and Ireland and the UK and the EU — is out of balance: an imbalance created by the protocol. In any negotiation, when one of those at the table is perceived as weak, the clear temptation is for others to take full advantage. However, such short-term advantage comes at the cost of long-term harm to relationships. It is not a real partnership. Imbalance and instability are built in that will fester and deteriorate. If Brussels continues to think that the protocol is enough, it is in denial. Imbalance and instability in the context of Northern Ireland is a truly dangerous cocktail. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and needs to be treated as such. If the EU does not do that, the UK will have a practical, political and moral obligation to act to protect the everyday life of everyone in Northern Ireland.

I may no longer be in a position of political leadership, Mr Speaker, but rest assured that I will contribute in whatever way I can to see Northern Ireland advance socially, politically, economically and culturally as part of the UK. I firmly believe that strong, functioning and successful devolution is vital to that and to building the success of Northern Ireland and what it is capable of in its new century.

Samuel Beckett — also educated in Fermanagh — wrote in 'Waiting for Godot':

"Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed."

He continued:

"But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it".

Let us be generous. Our Lord taught us the parable of the Good Samaritan, and I am sure that we have all heard it. Remember that two people passed by. They closed their eyes to the injured Jewish man. I have not always made the right calls; none of us is perfect. At the end of the parable, Our Lord asks, "Who is your neighbour?" — the one who stopped to offer help. Remember, stopping meant the Samaritan reaching out across the religious divide and meant him reaching into his own pocket and paying a price to provide shelter for the injured man. Our Lord concludes the parable by saying, "Go and do likewise." Mr Speaker, let us be good neighbours. Thank you for allowing me to speak. Over and out.

[Applause.]

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 12:15 pm, 14th June 2021

I remind the Assembly of the convention that, when a Minister makes a statement on their resignation, there will be an opportunity for others to comment afterwards. In order to be as fair and inclusive as possible, I have decided to adopt the procedure regularly used in Matters of the Day by allocating the next 30 minutes or so for others to speak. I ask that Members limit their remarks to three minutes.

More often, the focus of the Assembly is on political differences and debating how to respond to the challenges of the day. However, on other occasions, the Assembly rightly puts those issues aside and recognises the contribution made by individuals. Today is such a day as we recognise the service the First Minister, the Rt Hon Arlene Foster MLA, has given to the Assembly and to our society as she prepares to leave office.

Before I open the Floor to Members, let me make some remarks on behalf of myself and the Assembly. Arlene Foster was elected to the Assembly in 2003. As she recounted this morning, she has spent the majority of that time holding ministerial office as Minister of the Environment, Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Minister of Finance and Personnel and, of course, First Minister. She was the first woman to hold all of those roles and, indeed, is the longest-serving female Member of the Assembly since it was established. I know that, alongside her overall contribution, that is a legacy that she will be particularly proud of.

Arlene has been a key player in the journey since devolution was restored in 2007, and I have witnessed that at first hand in a series of continuing negotiations since then. Let me, as one of the few remaining Members who was elected in 1998, say this also: there has never been any shortage of people offering advice or criticism on every issue and situation throughout the process, and that is often a very good thing. As I have often said, the world and his granny will always have something to say. However, there are only a few individuals — Arlene being one — who have had to carry the burden of leadership and balance personal views, individual party views and mandates. The reality is that nothing in the Assembly can be achieved without building agreement. That has been evident during the pandemic, and the role Arlene has played, with others, in getting us through this difficult period will be remembered, in my view, in a positive manner.

We recognise that with that responsibility there are high and lows, so I also acknowledge the sacrifices that have come with that for Arlene. Our outgoing First Minister has been vocal about the toxic influence that social media often has on our political discourse, and many of us stand with her on the need to tackle that. I want to record that the negative aspects that unfortunately now come with being in the public eye cannot have been easy for her or her family.

Undoubtedly, Arlene, many in the Assembly and others outside will have views on what has passed over recent years. However, for today, let me say, both as Speaker and personally, "Arlene, we thank you for your public service". It is not for me to comment on recent events, and you referenced that in your rendition of 'That's Life' on Friday in a better way than any of us could have done. For the next verse of your life, we wish you and your family all the very best. Congratulations and thank you.

I have the names of some Members who have already indicated that they wish to speak. I ask all Members who would like to contribute to rise in their place, and I will endeavour to accommodate as many as possible. Of course, the briefer you are, the more opportunity there will be for others to say a few words.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank our outgoing First Minister, the Rt Hon Arlene Foster MLA, for her very considered and, indeed, powerful speech this afternoon. Arlene and I have worked together since 2003, and we have had much common ground over those years. Arlene is a unionist, and she is also a devolutionist. I believe that has, largely, been built on the fact that she and her family came through troubled times. She, like me, is a child of the Troubles, and we had a similar circumstance in that the Troubles visited our homes. Thankfully, in both instances, there was no loss of life, unlike what happened to others, but nonetheless it had a powerful impact on each of us. For Arlene, I believe, ensuring that we have peace and a way of working with each other in Northern Ireland was a powerful part of what she sought to ensure in her politics, and it led her to work with people who would have been regarded as enemies.

Over the course of her career — she has had a hugely successful career — she spent many years working on the economy. Week after week, job announcements were going out in the local media. Considerable work was carried out to ensure that people in Northern Ireland had better opportunities in life through those job opportunities, and she drove that forward in a very powerful way.

I believe that history will be very kind to Arlene. It should be kind to her, because she has done a considerable amount of work to ensure that we move forward. Even after the difficult times of 2017, with the collapse of devolution, the commitment was always there to ensure that we could get back together again, we could take people forward again and the public had this place for us to make decisions on their behalf. How important that was as COVID came in, which we did not anticipate. We could not have done without the Assembly and the Executive taking us through the period of COVID. It was therefore critical that that happened, and she drove it throughout.

As we move forward, I believe that there will be new opportunities. I also believe that Arlene will have a role in public life yet again and that, in that role, she will again deliver very powerfully.

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin 12:30 pm, 14th June 2021

I want to make a few brief comments. I commend Arlene for all her years of public service. Being in public life is, as we all know, not an easy job at times. As Arlene acknowledged, it can be very challenging, with many highs and many lows. Public life is even more challenging for a female. Many sacrifices are made, and we have to deal with the additional burden of the misogyny that exists in society. If there is one thing that I can say that we have done well together, it is that we highlighted that on numerous occasions in taking up many platforms.

We came back into the restored Executive 17 months ago, although it feels like it was a lifetime ago. When we stood in the Chamber and made our public commitments on working together, it was very much a day of hope. We needed to deliver on power-sharing, which needs to deliver good politics for everybody. It also needs to be about tackling waiting lists, reforming our health service and educational reform. We were committed to doing all those things. Obviously, however, the pandemic hit within a short number of months, and we very much put all our efforts and energies into trying to chart our way through that, which has been no mean feat. It has been extremely challenging. Arlene and I were certainly thrust into working very closely together over that time, to the point where Arlene joked at one stage that we were in each other's bubble. We were trying to do our best. That is the long and short of it. We worked together and alongside all our other ministerial colleagues to try to do our best to lead us through the pandemic.

Arlene, I wish you, your family and your beloved mother, whom you have spoken about on a number of occasions, the very best for the future. I hope that you get to spend more time with your family. I note the words in your final statement. You talked about the need for everybody to work together, to deliver for everybody and to come at things from the view that there is more that unites us than divides us. All those things are really important. This morning, I was reflecting on what I said in the Chamber when we re-established power-sharing. I talked that day about needing to work together on the basis of openness, transparency and accountability, in good faith and with no surprises, and that remains the position today. That is the only way in which we can share power together. All of us in the Chamber have been called upon to lead. That means leading and delivering for everybody. It means delivering power-sharing that is truly grounded in fairness and inclusion. That is certainly what I am here to do. I hope that we have willing partners with which to do so, because you cannot build power-sharing on broken promises. You must deliver upon agreements that are made. I am committed to doing that. I hope that others are, likewise, committed to doing it.

Finally, Arlene, every best wish for the future. I really hope that you get some special time with your family, regardless of whether they want to see you.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

On behalf of the SDLP, I thank the First Minister for her many years of public service. While it will be obvious to many that there is much that we have disagreed on, as a female leader in politics, I want to acknowledge that Mrs Foster and her family have made huge sacrifices over many years. I have no doubt that, as a female holding ministerial office over many years, Mrs Foster has faced serious and, as yet, untold challenges, not least when it comes to sexism. However, I have no doubt that Mrs Foster has also inspired many young girls to realise that there should be no limit on their ambitions and that if they believe in themselves, there is nothing that they cannot do.

Public service is never easy, politics is never easy, and the past few weeks will not have been easy for the First Minister and her family. Leadership is never easy, and leadership in a five-party Executive is not easy. After three years of paralysis, and in an unprecedented pandemic, it is incredibly challenging, as those who take up the mantle will know. At this juncture, it is important to reflect on the fact that devolution has been restored on the basis of a five-party agreement in New Decade, New Approach, and that all those commitments need to be honoured and delivered. It is only through the devolved institutions that we can deliver the change that our citizens deserve and need.

I close by wishing Arlene Foster well for the future as she embarks on this new chapter of her life.

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

First Minister, thank you. Thank you for your service; thank you for your commitment; and thank you for your sacrifices. I know that there have been many. We are both unionists, so we have a lot in common, but we also differ on certain things. However, we do so in the right way and in the right spirit to achieve the same purpose. You have carried yourself with the utmost dignity, even when that "et tu, Brute" moment came from those whom you would have called your friends. You held yourself with incredible dignity.

If there is something that I will reflect on in the months and years ahead, it will be how our First Minister went through this crisis, and the many other crises before, holding her head high. She should be very proud of that. It is noticed. It is noticed politically, and it is noticed by society, in general, not just in Northern Ireland, but further afield. There was lots to be done, but not all of it was completed. I will say this, though: that was a fine final speech. She could have made much mischief in the House — there could have been much for us all to scream and shout about — but she did not. She set a very clear path.

I finish by saying this to Arlene Foster — wife, mother, daughter: good luck in the future. Spend time with your family, look to your interests, and stand up for women in public life. That is incredibly important. You may have started in the Ulster Unionist Party and finished in the Democratic Unionist Party, but you will always get a nice cup of tea if you come to visit us.

[Laughter.]

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Arlene and I entered the Assembly at the same time, in 2003, whilst the structures were suspended. As a result, we have spent many long and, sometimes, tortured hours not only in the Assembly but in the various talks processes that have been required over the past 18 years to keep the institutions on track. The most recent of those talks led to me taking up a post in the Executive, so I start by thanking Arlene for her role in leading that Executive.

The role of First Minister and deputy First Minister is never easy in a five-party coalition that has such a diverse range of views. We knew that this term would be particularly challenging, given the strained relationships between parties after three years of suspension, the limited time that was left in the mandate and the demands of delivering the NDNA commitments to which we all signed up. None of us, however, could have predicted the pressure that COVID would add to the restored structures. It has often been difficult to make the progress that Arlene would have wished to make, but I want to thank her for her hard work over the course of this mandate and her previous roles in government.

It is fair to say that we have not always seen eye to eye. We have had our fair share of disagreements over the years. Some of those could even be described as heated, although I know that Members will find that hard to believe, given that we are both such shy and retiring characters. We have nevertheless been able to disagree and continue to work together to try to deliver the best possible outcomes for those whom we represent. There have also been many occasions when we have agreed and worked well together, particularly on the issues of social media abuse, sexism and misogyny, of which both of us, and many others in the Chamber, have experienced more than our fair share over the years. I am glad to hear that Arlene will continue to raise her voice in support of those issues and in support of women in public life.

The things that you remember most about people, however, are often not the big public events and set pieces but the quiet personal moments when you see the true measure of someone and who they really are. I will always recall that, on the day after I received my first death threat during the flags protests, Arlene was the first unionist politician who spoke to me to offer solidarity and support and to ask how I was. That small gesture probably meant more to me than she knew, but it stood out because she was one of only two people who did that on that day.

We also had opportunities for pleasant times. I recall the first time that the Tall Ships visited Belfast in 2009. We had the chance to spend a rare relaxing day on the boats, with Arlene as the ETI Minister and me as Lord Mayor of Belfast. It was lovely to have that opportunity to get to know her and her little family — as they were then, although they are now all grown up — a bit better. I am sure that Arlene's mum, husband and three children are immensely proud of her achievements thus far. I add my best wishes to Arlene and her family as she moves on from not only her role as First Minister but her role in the Assembly. Arlene has made a huge personal sacrifice to serve the public over the past 18 years. Those of us in politics of course recognise the fact that her family made those sacrifices alongside her. I thank them for supporting her throughout that time and to wish them every blessing for the future, whatever that may hold.

Finally, after hearing Arlene's rendition of 'That's Life', I thought that it might be appropriate to finish with a quote from Frank Sinatra. I toyed with:

"Start spreading the news I'm leaving today", but, instead, I will simply hope that for you, Arlene:

"The best is yet to come".

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

On behalf of the Green Party in Northern Ireland, I also congratulate Arlene Foster, the First Minister for a short time to come. My colleague Rachel Woods and I have not had the experience of working directly with you, First Minister, but we congratulate you for your track record: the roles that the Speaker announced that you have already taken up, the roles that you have held as the first woman in Northern Ireland and for your track record of breaking so many glass ceilings.

I wish you well. The grace and fortitude that you have shown over recent times have been remarkable. I have absolutely no doubt that your time in public life is not done. We look forward to seeing the work that you do in the future. I know that you have a birthday coming up, so I take this opportunity to wish you a happy birthday, and I hope that you get to spend some good time with your family. I look forward to seeing what you take up next and to seeing you break many more glass ceilings for women in public life. Perhaps that will not be only in Northern Ireland, but I will wait to see. Good luck and thank you very much.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I join others in sincerely wishing Mrs Foster and her family — the family are very often those least spoken of, and yet they share most of the burden — every good wish going forward as she retires from the office of First Minister.

Mind you, "retiring" is the last word that you would associate with Arlene Foster, but there we are.

We have had many disagreements, and we still have, but Arlene conducted herself in office with considerable poise and presence that will not be easy to replicate. In all my dealings with her, I found her straightforward and honourable. I have known Arlene for many years, both in this life and in her previous life in the law.

It could not be said, though, that her removal from office was either straightforward or honourable, and it leaves a considerable scar on the body politic. We had a power grab with no perceptible policy change and, clearly, with no gaming of what would happen next, which means that, because of the absurdity of the system in the House, we are now back into ransom politics. The absurdity is underscored by the fact that a party that does not want Northern Ireland to exist, never mind succeed, now has a veto on whether her successor can ever take office. What an absurd system, one that enables that party — Sinn Féin — to make —.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 12:45 pm, 14th June 2021

Mr Allister, resume your seat for a moment, please. I remind you that you are here to pay your personal tribute to the outgoing First Minister, who is here this morning to make a personal statement. I ask you reflect on that, without necessarily extending your remarks beyond the contribution that Mrs Foster made this morning. The purpose of this morning is for a personal statement to be made by the First Minister as she retires from public life and leaves the Assembly. I ask you to reflect on that when concluding your remarks.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

We cannot look back without looking forward. We look back on the time of Mrs Foster as First Minister, and we now look forward to whether there will be another in that position. I make the point — it is clear and indisputable — that the absurdity of the system puts a question mark over that and takes us back into the doldrums of ransom politics. That is not a good place for the House to be.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I have heard valedictory occasions such as this being described as the closest that you will ever get to being at your own funeral without the inconvenience of dying, but, if that is the case, I will slightly misquote Shakespeare: I come not to bury Caesar but to praise her.

I can rightly claim, I think, to be the person in the House who has known Arlene Foster longest; indeed, I knew her before she was Arlene Foster. She is a person who was shaped not simply by the events of the Troubles but by a loving family environment, which meant that she built strength of character and resilience but never at the expense of humanity or with bitterness.

I can recall the first time that I met Arlene, and, to slightly misquote The Human League, she was not quite working as a waitress in a cocktail bar when I first met her

[Laughter]

, but she was helping out her future husband Brian at the Wyvern Inn in Lisnaskea. That was in the days before she was at Queen's. I am not sure that it entirely fitted with the licensing laws, but I will leave that aside. Since that first meeting, I have known Arlene through her days at Queen's, her days at Windsor Avenue with Julie, Wendy and Joanne, her days in the Young Unionists, her days as a solicitor, her days in the DUP, her days as Environment Minister, Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Finance Minister and, finally, First Minister. I can reflect, as others do, on the many public achievements that she has been associated with, from the reform of local government to the massive boost that she gave to the economy as Economy Minister; from the confidence-and-supply agreement to taking us through the pandemic; to shattering the glass ceiling; and, indeed, most recently, having the guts to take on internet trolls.

I also reflect on the private Arlene. She has always been good company and good banter. I can remember a duet once that involved Arlene and Nelson McCausland. They sang 'Islands In The Stream', and, somehow, Nelson McCausland managed to sing Dolly Parton's part.

[Laughter.]

I remember also the many one-to-one private interactions that Arlene had with people and her many personal kindnesses. I was among the many who received the benefit of them.

The one thing that I particularly associate with Arlene is loyalty: to her friends and family, to her beloved Fermanagh and South Tyrone, to the people of Northern Ireland and to the unionist cause. Loyalty sometimes comes at a cost, but that cost is always a price worth paying. As Arlene looks forward to the next chapter of her life, I assure her that I remain not only her colleague but her loyal friend.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I assure Mr Weir that I will forward a copy of Hansard to Dolly Parton very shortly.

[Laughter.]

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the First Minister for her work in various roles across the Executive and in the Assembly. I do not have any stories of duets or cocktail waitresses in bars. First Minister, I first met you in Newcastle, at the opening of the promenade. I remember taking time, as chair of the council, to bend your ear about the importance of advocating, through the review of public administration, that youth services remained within Education so that we could try to help, develop and strengthen them. That was the case, and I know that, as far back as those days, you have always had an interest in young people.

The issues that we have had to discuss in the Executive Office Committee, of which I am Chair, over the past year and a half have been difficult, divisive and, indeed, controversial, but you have been polite, courteous and friendly to me. It needs to be said that those are important attributes. Politics can be a difficult and dirty game. When you walk off the pitch knowing that you have done your best, worked hard for people and always done what you thought was right, you, at least, walk off that pitch with your head held high.

I commend you for your work in calling out social media trolls and the horrendous social media environment. I hope that you will be able to continue to use your voice and experience to call that out in the future, especially the impact that it has on young people. It can be absolutely life-destroying. It will be useful for people to know that somebody is speaking out for them.

As I am just a few short years away from being 50, I say this to the First Minister: you are still young, and you have a long future ahead of you. I wish you and your family all the very best in that future. Good luck.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

First Minister, I thank you for your fabulous speech, which you made with great dignity and courage. Like the Member across the Chamber, I may not have had the chance to work with you personally, but I have experienced your politics and seen what you have had to suffer over a number of years. Theodore Roosevelt, in a famous speech that he penned in 1910, referred to "the man ... in the arena"; in 2021, perhaps we need to talk about the woman in the arena. You are, perhaps, a perfect example of how, in modern times, a woman can lead and lead successfully in, at times, the most difficult circumstances. That has been going on for a number of years.

Politics is a strange place. I remember that, in the 2017 election, I was up against a number of really good candidates in Lagan Valley. There was a white van with your face emblazoned on the side, and the caption was "Moving forward with Arlene". That was a considerable challenge for me as the Ulster Unionist MLA.

As a number of Members have pointed out, you have a fantastic online presence. I noticed today that you have 99,600 followers on Twitter. I hope that, by the end of today, you will have 100,000 and that you use that platform to reach out to young girls and inspire them further to challenge the narrative and the bullying and to challenge all the things in society that we seek to challenge together.

I hope that you do not mind if I call you Arlene at this stage. You know, because I have told you, that I have prayed for you many times over the years, as I have for Michelle and for many leaders. I have prayed for you more often recently. I hope that you have felt those prayers. I noticed that, at the end of your speech, you rightly gave God his rightful place. I offer you and your family this consolation. In 2016, I stepped away from the Fire and Rescue Service and a job that, I thought, I would have for life. I had huge ambitions in the Fire Service, but I believe that God took me in a different direction. What you may see as a pain is God perhaps saying, "I have something better for you" to you and your family. I really hope and pray that he does, Arlene, and I wish you all the best.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I am grateful for the opportunity to pay tribute to Arlene. I do so not only for myself but on behalf of thousands of people in my constituency, in my party and across Northern Ireland. Since the restoration of devolution, I have had a front-row seat as Arlene has served as First Minister. While many have evaluated and will continue to evaluate her legacy, no one can credibly question her commitment to and love for Northern Ireland and its people. It was that passion for Northern Ireland that contributed to her incredible target-busting success in bringing so many jobs, investors and tourists to Northern Ireland during her time as economy Minister. It was her love for this place and her concern for its people that was the driving force as she led us, as First Minister, through some incredibly difficult months as a result of the pandemic. I thank her most sincerely for her work, for the dedication that she has demonstrated over so many years in public life and for the grace and class that she has shown in the last number of weeks. I also thank her family, for her sacrifices were theirs also. I know that she would not have been able to do the job without their love and support.

This is a bittersweet moment. There is clearly a sense of relief as burdens are laid down. There will be fewer demands on her time, and it is the end of many day-to-day frustrations. Of course, there will be no more Executive meetings, which, I can reveal to the House, are a test of patience and are invariably bereft of brevity: I am not looking at anybody in particular. While it may be good to have those over, it is bittersweet, because there is still so much work to be done. Not only are there the immediate challenges such as the pandemic and, of course, the protocol but there is a larger piece of work that needs to be completed. I know that Arlene wants Northern Ireland to be a place at peace with itself and a place where everyone can feel at home. That work is far from complete, and we have much left to do. Thanks to her endeavours and her encouragement of the next generation, there will be people on these Benches who will continue that work for a more prosperous, peaceful Northern Ireland at home within the United Kingdom that we cherish.

I wish Arlene well for the future, whatever it may hold. Much has been made of her vocal talents over the past few days. As one of the few who were fortunate enough to hear the First Minister's full rendition of a Frank Sinatra classic, I gently encourage Arlene not to put all her eggs in the entertainment basket and perhaps keep other options open at this time . In closing, I thank Arlene for the kindness, support and encouragement that she has shown to me personally, for her friendship and for all the work that she has done on behalf of our party, our country and all the people of Northern Ireland. Thank you.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I, too, joined the Assembly in 2003, although I had a bit of a blip between 2016 and 2017. I am grateful to the people of Upper Bann who put me back into this place. Over the past couple of years in particular, I am often asked by people, "What's Arlene Foster really like? Is she like that?". I usually start with, "Well, you know". I try to explain to people that many of us have a public persona. Over the past few weeks, I think, we have seen part of the real Arlene, from the class that you displayed in your song at the weekend to how you have dealt with the challenges. I am sure that even today has been another difficult day of many difficult days. Today, all your family will be watching with some trepidation and hoping that you get through this afternoon OK. I am sure that they, like many others watching, can say that you did it with style, resilience and character.

I hope that, over the coming weeks, months and, indeed, years, when, there is no doubt, you will have other causes to fight, you show a wee bit more of the real Arlene; the one who has that sense of humour and can make fun of herself as well as having a strength of character. I wish you well in the weeks, months and years ahead.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP 1:00 pm, 14th June 2021

I believe that Mrs Foster and I first met on a trip to London in 1998. UTV took a number of critics to Downing Street to debate the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement with Tony Blair. At dinner afterwards, I said to Mrs Foster, "I understand that you have been tipped as a potential leader of the Ulster Unionist Party". She smiled sweetly at me and said, "Not after tonight".

[Laughter.]

I also recall, not long after I was first elected here, being on the radio, criticising the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. Suddenly, I was not alone, because joining by phone from the back of her ministerial car was Mrs Foster, admonishing me and defending her Department. Figuring out that the best form of defence was attack, I suggested that I was getting somewhere because she was so angry. That was followed by a pause that was long enough for the programme host to wonder whether we had lost the line to Fermanagh. We had not. Mrs Foster replied — and, may I say, in a tone that you could not accuse of lacking in malice — by saying that that was not her being angry, and that, furthermore, I did not want to risk my luck by making her angry.

[Laughter.]

On Friday, like everybody else, I saw Mrs Foster be the exact opposite of angry as she sang Sinatra to Gareth Gordon. It reminded me of when I bumped into her in the corridor upstairs not long after I stood down as Ulster Unionist Party leader. She said, "Look, there is a man for whom the weight of the world has just been lifted off his shoulders". I hope that it is the same for you, Mrs Foster, because, whatever our differences down the years, public service is what we agree on, and you have given supreme public service.

I wish you well for the future as you open a new chapter, and, indeed, I believe, as you write some chapters. I will look forward to reading your book as much as I hope you look forward to reading mine. In the meantime, of course, we have a pub crawl to look forward to. Mr Aiken has promised a pub crawl for former leaders of unionist parties. I can say only that the critics of your successor as leader of the DUP would say to Mr Aiken at this point, "We're going to need a bigger pub".

[Laughter.]

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

That concludes the item of business. I invite Members to take their ease before we move on to the next item.