DEMOCRATIC Unionist leader Arlene Foster has said she regrets describing republicans as “crocodiles” ahead of last week’s snap election because it “allowed Sinn Fein to demonise me.”

The embattled former first minister retained her Stormont seat but lost running mate Lord Maurice Morrow in what she has described as a “bruising election.”

In an exclusive interview with The Impartial Reporter yesterday (Wednesday), Mrs. Foster:

  • Would not state if she will seek the first minister’s position again
  • Hit out at Sean Lynch, saying she has no respect for the newly elected Sinn Fein MLA
  • Rejected suggestions that she is ‘anti-Irish language’ or ‘anti-Catholic’

Mrs. Foster addressed a breakfast event hosted by Rotary Club of Enniskillen yesterday on International Women’s Day in which she spoke of the importance of “reconciliation.”

But remarks before the election about Sinn Fein such as ‘if you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back and looking for more’ in relation to the party’s desire for an Irish Language Act infuriated republicans and in many ways became the narrative of the contest.

Asked if she regretted making the remarks criticised by Sinn Fein, Mrs. Foster said: “I regret in so far as it allowed Sinn Fein to use it against me and to use it to demonise me.”

“Sinn Fein mounted a campaign of demonisation against me and to a certain extent succeeded in that. I just have to prove to people that I am the same Arlene Foster as I have always been.”

Mrs. Foster was then asked if she is against the use the Irish language given some of her previous comments, including when she said: “Since there were more people in Northern Ireland who spoke polish than Irish, perhaps there should be a Polish Language Act as well?”

“The crocodile comment was in relation to Sinn Fein and not in relation to the Irish Language Act. I have always made it clear that if people want to converse or learn the Irish language then they should be allowed to do so and should be able to do so and indeed we have spent millions of pounds through the Executive. We spent £171 million on Irish language including Irish language education so it’s entirely wrong to say we don’t support the Irish language.”

Asked to respond to the suggestion by some of her critics that she is ‘anti-Catholic’ Mrs. Foster said: “Anybody who comes into my constituency office knows that is complete nonsense.”

“I have worked through all my years as MLA for everybody regardless of class or creed. In fact one of my Catholic constituents came down to the Omagh count centre to wish me well. It’s nonsense to suggest that I don’t work for everybody in the community.”

During her speech at last week’s election count, Mrs. Foster talked about the need for ‘civility’, a point Michelle Gildernew picked up on when she took to the stage.

“I listened very closely to the leader of the DUP talking about civility and I really hope that that civility extends to the Irish language community and the LGBT community,” she said.

Impartial Reporter:

In response, Mrs. Foster said: “After what had been a pretty bruising election I wanted to try to sound a note of optimism in terms of building for the future and trying to put what had happened behind all of us. Unfortunately Sinn Fein were not interested in that sort of language. For those of us who live in the West we are used to that sort of triumphalism from Sinn Fein. When people lecture about respect, integrity and equality they need to reflect that that has to be for everybody and not just for them. There needs to be mutual respect for those of us from a British/Orange culture, and one that is not going away,” she said.

Mrs. Foster sparked a furious reaction from many Sinn Fein supporters when she walked out of the election count centre as Mr. Lynch, a former IRA commander, took to the stage after being elected. Asked why she walked out, she said: “Nobody should be surprised that I don’t have much respect for Sean Lynch... I don’t think anyone should be surprised that I really didn’t want to hear want he wanted to say.”

Impartial Reporter:

Last year Mrs. Foster publicly criticised Mr. Lynch who paid tribute to Seamus McElwaine, the man whom she believes tried to murder her father. He was shot dead by the SAS in 1986 as he and Mr. Lynch tried to ambush an Army patrol near Rosslea. As Mrs. Foster left the count centre on Friday, Mr. Lynch quipped “see you later, alligator” to loud cheers.

“He was able to berate me from the stage in a fashion that was most unbecoming of people who have been lecturing us about respect,” she responded.

Mrs. Foster played down reports that there has been a revolt in her party and responded to comments by Ian Paisley Junior who said this week: “I think Arlene has a strong support base. But she also has to answer some very tough questions. And that’s on behalf of all of us.”

“Ian will be as Ian always is,” she responded. “It doesn’t entirely surprise me. He has indicated that he supports me as leader, he’ll always have his own individual views and that’s the way he always behaves.”

As negotiations got underway at Stormont this week there are many issues now facing the DUP leader, including whether or not she will seek the first minister’s position again.

Asked about this, Mrs. Foster said: “We are in the middle of the negotiations at the minute in terms of devolution, that’s what we want to see. But it takes two to tango and it’s whether Sinn Fein want to come back into devolution and make it work.”

Impartial Reporter:

Asked again if she will return as first minister or give up the role, Mrs. Foster said: “As I have said, I remain the leader of unionism and that will remain the case. Who we nominate is a matter for me and my team at Stormont.

“We certainly will not be dictated to by Sinn Fein, it is a matter for us to decide.

“If we allow them to dictate who our nominees should be then we should have a reciprocal role in relation to their nominees,” she said.