Arlene’s DUP could be party of esteem

Posted By: January 05, 2016

Fionnuala O Connor. Irish News (Belfast). Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Whether she reaches beyond her own and her family’s experience of the Troubles, and the least reconstructed instincts of her community is the question, not her ability. Arlene Foster could be the first minister for all that Peter Robinson never tried to be for more than days before regressing. She has what Peter didn’t, guts and gumption.

Her gender, though worth noting, is not her most interesting feature. Long ago, she roused a Ulster Unionist conference to delighted laughter by telling them that ‘parity of esteem’ – then buzz phrase as supposedly the basis for what would be the Good Friday Agreement – couldn’t happen. Irish identity, the youthful Arlene declaimed, could never have equal status with British identity. What nationalists wanted they could not have, because the identity of Northern Ireland ‘is my identity’.

In staid Ulster Unionism and the sub-group nicknamed the ‘baby barristers’, David Trimble fans turned scourges, the Fermanagh solicitor stood out as hardline female. The first characteristic decided her direction of travel, as it could dictate her leadership. If Arlene wants to leave a bigger legacy than the man she replaces, she will need breadth he could not sustain.

When she jumped tracks, alongside the now relegated but then more prominent Jeffrey Donaldson, and climbed aboard the DUP bandwagon, she praised her new party’s warmth. (Donaldson’s massive majority, it might be noted, gave him the electoral cushion she lacked: she jumped anyhow.) ‘Doc’, Arlene said, lavished her with the charm that was flip side to his scarifying rhetoric. Noticed her arrival, asked about her new baby. Not a thing David Trimble would ever do, she said convincingly. For all the misogynistic baggage of Paisleyite fundamentalism, it rang true. Ulster Unionism was similarly male dominated, also chilly, class-ridden.

Now the track-jumper is running the show. By this day next week, the DUP will have sent its remaining founder-figure into the memory hole of retirement. Recent experience suggests that very quickly the public square will effectively blank out Peter Robinson. Electoral tactician and sharp negotiator who flunked the test of leadership, quick-witted, ill-tempered survivor of marital trauma and over-long apprenticeship to the most massive ego in the western political world, in the top spot Peter the clever under-achieved.

Arlene has similar sharp tongue and reservoir of temper. But her New Year message had a chunky enough promise on the issue that Robinson, like the rest of unionism, has shamefully neglected: the educational underachievement of Protestant boys. Not precisely how she put it, but a deliberate note all the same among more predictable ambitions for ‘this country.’ She may be sincere about tackling the woeful consequences of selective education. Though given her accompanying careful tribute to grammar schools, it is hard to imagine how she can do it.

But Arlene has been readied for the job, up to and including periods as stand-in, as the party has been readied for her.

Given that similarity in ability more often impels leaders to block likely successors than to anoint them, why did Robinson promote her and why did the party accept it? The late implosion of Nigel Dodds, probably no surprise internally, is surely much of the answer. Few could have known better than Peter that Nigel didn’t have the right stuff. Those two have seen each other up close over their entire adult lives. That left Arlene. Nobody else was up to it.

As someone who left one party for its sworn enemy after a prolonged spell helping to make life hell for her former leader, Arlene is tough above all. You will search long and hard for Foster-fans in Fermanagh Ulster Unionism, explanation enough for why her gender hasn’t hindered her DUP rise.

Who’s to call her a weak vessel? Sammy Wilson? Although spasmodic outrage will jerk him upright for the benefit of East Antrim viewers, and mischief plus spite may produce more maverick turns, like his anti-EU cracks at David Cameron, the future for Sammy, as for the other unionist MPs, is a long Westminster doze.

Party leader Arlene can ignore the MPs and focus on the deepest desire of her grassroots, which is to secure Stormont. She may still believe that Northern Ireland is nothing but British and nationalists can lump it. Foster-speak this year, Paisley-flavoured, called nationalist ministers potential ‘rogues and renegades’, Jim Allister ‘lower than a snake’s belly’.

Can First Minister Arlene stop that stuff? Abandon fake petitions of concern, build relationships with nationalists instead of boasting she has none? Embrace ‘parity of esteem’?

Yes she can.