Arlene Foster has said she lost friends over her decision to attend the funeral of Martin McGuinness but that it was the 'Christian thing to do'.
Northern Ireland’s First Minister spoke about the fallout from her attendance at the church service for the former IRA commander-turned-Stormont leader as she appeared on Irish channel RTE’s flagship Late Late Show.
“I think it was absolutely the right thing to do and there are a lot of innocent victims who felt very strongly about it at the time and I totally understand that as well,” she said.
“I lost friends over going to the funeral but I still believe it was the right thing to do.”
Mrs Foster’s first appearance on the RTE show has been widely interpreted as a conciliatory gesture to the Irish Republic after years of strained relations over Brexit.
In a wide-ranging interview, the Fermanagh politician spoke about her childhood experiences of violence when the IRA attempted to murder her father and then blew up a school bus she was travelling on.
The only time in the 23-minute interview when there was any sign of a negative reaction from the studio audience was when she outlined her opposition to same sex marriage.
She spoke about her relationship with Mr McGuinness, whom she served with at the head of the Stormont Executive before the institutions imploded in January 2017. Mr McGuiness died two months later from a rare heart condition.
She said it was “very difficult” to deal with the fact Mr McGuinness had given an oration at the funeral of IRA member Seamus McElwaine, the man suspected of involvement in the gun attack on her father.
But she insisted it did not colour their relationship.
“I got on quite well with Martin – you may say that is very strange given his background and given my background, but I think we have to make choices and, to me, reconciliation actually starts with the individual,” she said.
“As leaders we have to show that we want to move forward and do things differently for our children and to give them hope, but reconciliation has to start with the person as well, so I had to see beyond what he had done in the past and I am sure he had to look beyond who I was as well, as a strong unionist.”
She revealed that people told her to her face that they no longer considered her a friend after she went to the funeral in Londonderry.
“It was difficult because these were people I have known for a long time but they take a different view in relation to this,” she said.
“I took the view that I served with him in government, that I worked with him in government and it was only the right, the Christian thing to do to pay my respects to somebody who had passed away.
“As a leader you have things to do that you may not do if you were just an ordinary citizen and that’s why I had to do it.”
The DUP leader was famously applauded by fellow mourners when she entered St Columba’s Church Long Tower.
“Obviously I was apprehensive going to the funeral because I didn’t know what sort of reception I would get because the Executive was down at that point in time and we had had a very difficult election, it was very polarised, so I didn’t know what sort of reception I would get at the funeral.
“I was apprehensive but I have to say I was welcomed very warmly.”
Mrs Foster was mid-way through the interview when the UK formally left the EU at 11pm.
“We are leaving the European Union tonight, the United Kingdom leaves, but that doesn’t mean we are not still neighbours and I wanted to send out message that we are and will continue to be neighbours,” she said.
Mrs Foster said it was right not be triumphalist about Brexit.
“I am pleased that the UK has respected the vote that was taken right across the nation but I can understand there are many people who will not be celebrating tonight because they feel sad about that,” she said.