“Gestures” won’t make a real political difference

Posted By: June 29, 2018

Alex Kane.  Irish News. Belfast. Friday, June 29, 2018
Arlene Foster attending the Ulster GAA final was never going to make a button of difference to how we do politics in Northern Ireland. And that’s because it didn’t herald a shift in the DUP’s thinking on same-sex marriage, abortion, Irish language or when and how a petition-of-concern could be deployed if the Assembly is ever rebooted.

It wasn’t a nod-and-a-wink to broader nationalism that she regretted the comment about crocodiles, rogues, and renegades. It wasn’t a signal to Sinn Féin that she was ready to try and repair the damage done to the relationship between both parties when the talks process collapsed last February.

It wasn’t a shot over the bow of the DUP’s evangelical grassroots (the bulk of whom had been backing Paisley since before she was born); a very public warning – and on a Sunday, too – that she was prepared to endorse progressive, liberal politics, if that was the price to be paid for restoring the Assembly.

I’m not sure it can be truly described as a ‘gesture’ at all: but if it was, it was of the shrugging-the-shoulders, ‘I suppose I need to be seen to do something’ variety of gesture.

When it was first mentioned that she was ‘considering’ an invitation to attend the match I was asked for my opinion. Here’s my response: “If people in both the DUP and Sinn Féin, along with the British and Irish governments, genuinely believe that images of Foster at a GAA final are maybe – just maybe – enough to kick-start new negotiations, then it’s a sure sign that the process has, finally, plumbed into pure farce.”

Spontaneous, unrehearsed, spur-of-the-moment gestures tell you something very specific: albeit something that isn’t always helpful. But gestures which are orchestrated, rehearsed and played out for the camera and microphone tell you very little. They are designed to convey an impression – mostly superficial, of course – that there is progress; the sort of progress that should have us lauding the leaders and mocking the cynics. The sort of progress that allows the secretary of state to continue avoiding the decision about slashing salaries.

Let’s be blunt: if gestures actually worked, then we wouldn’t be in the present mess. For most of the past fortnight, I’ve heard references to the importance of Martin McGuinness’s ‘gesture’ in shaking hands with the Queen. Yet it was Martin McGuinness who brought down the political institutions in January 2017, when his resignation letter laid bare what some of us had been writing for years; namely, that the DUP/Sinn Féin relationship was a sham. And what about Ian Paisley’s ‘gesture’ of forging the Chuckle Brothers relationship with McGuinness? Less than a year later he was booted from the leadership and his role as the first minister because the DUP grassroots didn’t like it and the cabal around Robinson feared an electoral hit.

Sinn Féin, of course, is heaping praise on Foster: but also urging her to press on with a change in other areas. And that’s because they know that Foster has enemies around her own top table; as well as significant players and groups within the party who will not be endorsing concessions. She got her fingers very badly burned almost five months ago when it was made clear to her that meeting Sinn Féin’s demands on the Irish language would split the party and leave her weakened and isolated. She didn’t have the clout and long-term loyalty commanded by Paisley and Robinson (although both of them finally outstayed their welcome) and had to back down.

But, as I say, she needs to be seen to be doing something: something that makes her look interesting and hints at a leader who is finally acknowledging the ‘bigger picture’ and reaching out. Yet, reaching out to whom? And for what purpose?

Well, we know the real purpose – it’s to ensure that Sinn Féin doesn’t have the field all to themselves when it comes to tapping into specific demographics in search of votes. It’s still a difficult job for Foster. She has, for example, to persuade gay people that it’s ok to vote for the DUP even though the party’s official position – which won’t be changing any time soon – is one of opposition to same-sex-marriage. She has to keep her anti-abortion base on board, even though she knows that the DUP’s growth since 1998 has been fuelled by support from many younger, more middle-class unionists who don’t have the same hang-ups on some moral issues.

What Foster has to do, if she wants the Assembly up and running again, is push her party in directions which key elements will find uncomfortable. Sinn Féin will be happy if she pushes them too far because that could mean the DUP is losing votes (the gap at the last Assembly election was one seat and around 1,200 votes) and allowing Sinn Féin into the first minister’s office. So Foster must tread with great care. She has two crucial elements in her favor, though: the electoral challenge to the DUP from the UUP/TUV/PUP is negligible; and, when push comes to shove, the vast majority of unionists will still prefer a DUP first minister to Michelle O’Neill.