The joint leaders of Northern Ireland’s devolved government say their response to COVID-19 shows unionists and nationalists can work together.
First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill had been sharing power for just 10 weeks when confronted with the global coronavirus pandemic.
Mrs Foster, the DUP leader, said: “We had to deal with that in a very fast time and I think we have shown we can work together in difficult times.
“I’m not saying it’s a good thing we’ve had a global pandemic but I think it shows that we have come together and that we can work together in the way that we have,” she added.
Ms O’Neill, who disagreed on the timing of school closures at the start of the crisis, dismissed it as “a difference of emphasis but not necessarily in approach”.
The Sinn Fein leader at Stormont said: “Executive colleagues have worked very closely together to try to chart our way through this as best we can with that one objective, to try to save lives.”
Mrs Foster is staunchly pro-Union and Ms O’Neill passionate about Irish unity but they insist their polar-opposite views on the constitutional question are no hindrance to their political partnership.
The DUP leader said: “Michelle and I come from completely different political backgrounds, we have different political philosophies but there are things that we share in common.
“It’s the common ground which we’ve been trying to concentrate on during this crisis and indeed throughout the devolved experience and that’s what’s driving us.”
“We will differ from time to time. I think Michelle has used the phrase ‘to differ but to differ well’ and I think that is the key to all of this,” she added.
Ms O’Neill agreed: “I believe the past number of months, because of COVID-19 probably, has brought us all closer together in so far as we are having to work around the clock to take this on.
“When I walk through the door of the Assembly or the Executive, I don’t cease to be a republican but I’m here as a partner in a power-sharing government. I’m here to try to make it work.
“Neither of us is going to cease to have that view, it’s legitimate for us both to have that view but it’s our job to govern for people here.”
“Whilst I make the case of Irish unity and Arlene will make the case for maintaining the link with Britain, that’s just politics,” she added.
Ms O’Neill revealed that both their mothers had been admitted to hospital in recent weeks and said they had worries like everyone else.
She said: “Sometimes people think politicians are a people apart, that somehow we live a different reality, our reality’s the same as everybody else’s.”
When asked what she was finding difficult about lockdown, Mrs Foster conceded: “I miss my hairdresser… and I miss congregational singing in church.”