Arlene’s fury on Irish language showed she is not that smart after all

Posted By: February 14, 2017


DUP leader and former 

First Minister Arlene Foster

Fionnuala O Connor. Irish News. Belfast. Tuesday, February 14, 2017

There will be no unification of Ireland except by consent – and there will be no return to the days of unionist or Protestant supremacy because those days have no place in the modern world.’ Who said it? ‘So the unionists must accept justice and equality for nationalists. The Republicans must show they have given up violence.’

That passage in Tony Blair’s speech to the 2001 Labor party conference infuriated the then leader of political unionism, David Trimble. As he let London know, sharpish. “David’s problem,” a British official of the time confirmed to Belfast journalists, “was apparently the Protestant supremacy reference.”

It was a Trimble fixation to try recasting unionist supremacy in a rosier light. But confusing ability to block with the right to dictate is a communal delusion that still hangs around. A whole sixteen years down the line, unionist politicians are still talking about what ‘concessions’ they will agree to, what they will and will not “concede.” There is no Blair figure to raise an eyebrow or lift the phone and say ‘Excuse me?’

Today’s Trimble figure is the DUP leader, Ulster Unionism long supplanted as the biggest party. Arlene Foster apparently imagines that she can beat the old supremacist drum with impunity. Or that was what she imagined until Martin McGuinness finally said enough, too much. Where we are now is the middle of an unholy muddle. Assessing the potential loss of Stormont patronage, status and income may take a while to reach right across the Unionist community. Even without a scandal that the DUP caused, and cannot handle, this would be a messy time. But will the mess teach any lessons?

Republicans have moved so far beyond ‘giving up violence’ that Foster knew there would be no IRA comeback while she and her party belittled Sinn Féin, the people they represent, and, almost incidentally, the rest of Nationalism.

What else should she fear? A dressing-down by Theresa May? Such strong complaint to May from Enda Kenny that the British would have to scold the DUP? But the only May interest is an awareness that DUP votes are a handy resource for a PM with a narrow majority. The current secretary of state is no more subtle or sensitive than his predecessor. The priority is to keep the DUP sweet; why dress it up?

The only Kenny interest is to see Sinn Féin lose face and better yet votes in his part of the island. A Stormont collapse bothers neither Premier and just now Kenny has enough to worry about.

A smidgen of vision would have stopped Foster’s gallop this past year. A breath of generosity and she would have behaved differently from the outset. At her campaign launch a reporter asked almost wonderingly if, with last spring’s election victory, she couldn’t have afforded to be magnanimous about an Irish language act. She reacted with fury. The very idea! What an insult! Show magnanimity about Irish? And there she went too far, as though unaware she had already lost the last vestige of an image as competent, smart.

Crocodile tears in this paper on Saturday confirmed the impression that this is not a smart woman, after all. Those sessions in the assembly when she stood in for the beset Peter Robinson misled many. She could speak on her feet without reading a script. She sounded in command. Hindsight suggests she was particularly impressive because others were so woeful.

Last May’s vote, swiftly christened ‘her’ vote, said her people loved her for behaving like a female Paisley before his fall. Or that at least is what the vote said to her. Common-sense and imagination went up in a bonfire of vanity. Her direct appeal to Irish News readers at the weekend took some gumption and reflection. Claiming objection to an Irish language act in part on the grounds of cost, though, sounds perilously close to ‘do you think we have money to, er, burn?’

To be fair, people closer to Sinn Féin thinking than Foster were sure Republicans would go on sitting tight. The diligent diggers in our trade were still digging, and the thumb-suckers among us didn’t know there was money burning. What was a girl to think? Signs are she thought she might as well give McGuinness a good kicking.

And Irish as the crunch issue? The language is not a Sinn Féin toy. Unionist contempt and the dregs of supremacism feed support for legislation to safeguard it. Prescribing another’s identity for them is never smart. Here endeth one lesson.