Leadership is sitting awkwardly with Arlene

Posted By: May 02, 2016

“This ludicrously pompous and undignified foot-stomping was insulting to nationalists and counter-productive to unionists, as Dublin will happily avoid the subject if left alone. “

Newton Emerson.Irish News (Belfast).  Thursday, April 28, 2016

There is a saying in American politics that the chair rises up to meet you – meaning that if you lack the authority of your office, the mere act of taking office will give you some more.

Maybe that works in the White House but in the less impressive office of a Stormont first minister, it helps to adjust the chair yourself.

Peter Robinson made obvious efforts to curtail his notorious temper en route to leading Northern Ireland.

The man who jabbed his finger in David Trimble’s face during the ‘fuss at the bus’, who screamed “at least I have hair” when Michael McGimpsey told him to keep his hair on, who fired off mixed-metaphor insults late into the night from the leather-lined library at the Castlereagh Hacienda and who blew his top so reliably on TV that interviews with him should have been titled ‘An Audience with Dame Etna’ – all that was gone by the time he joined Martin McGuinness at Stormont Castle. Apart from one brief snap at a particularly stressful press conference, it stayed gone for eight years.

Arlene Foster was Robinson’s clearly preferred successor for at least six of those years – a long time to prepare.

Yet her exasperated impatience with political opponents seems as curt as ever.

The classic such encounter was with Sinn Féin’s Alex Maskey three years ago on Stephen Nolan’s television show. In fairness to Foster this was extreme provocation – Maskey’s statements on a border poll and the economy were laughable.

But the point about a leader is that they should not laugh, or sneer or look pleased with themselves for a patronising put-down or appear to have been riled in any way. They should rise above it all, as if borne by a higher chair.

At the Sinn Féin conference last Saturday, Gerry Adams called on the next Irish government to produce a green paper on Irish unity – an annual ritual with about as much consequence as a druid summoning the solstice.

Foster decided to respond to this not only by attacking Adams personally (his “project has failed”, his “batteries are flat”) but by warning Dublin it would be “wholly unacceptable” for an Irish government to campaign for a united Ireland.

This ludicrously pompous and undignified foot-stomping was insulting to nationalists and counter-productive to unionists, as Dublin will happily avoid the subject if left alone. But worst of all it was unnecessary – not annoying people you do not need to annoy is an entry-level political skill.

Foster has been in politics for over two decades and can call on a wealth of advice and experience from others. Anyone would have told her to ignore Adams unless questioned, then said something like: “I understand Dublin’s position and it understands mine.” Why does she need to be told this, or even not realise she needs to be told?

It is not just on the matter of temperament that Foster’s forehead still barely peeks above her desk. Since assuming office in January she has flip-flopped at times aggressively over the centenary of the Easter Rising, while taking an increasingly strident approach to the centenary of partition – putting it in the DUP manifesto and telling Radio Ulster she expects “everyone” in Northern Ireland to celebrate the birth of the state.

Few will be surprised that Foster believes this but it is incredible that she has not worked out a simple form of words to express herself in a consistent and non-confrontational manner. The events of 1916 were so morally ambiguous even by their own anachronistic terms that any politician today should be able to slot them around any position they wish. Nor is there any excuse for a centenary seeming to catch you unaware. It seems doubly incredible for a politician with a law degree to have such a poor facility with language.

The received wisdom about Foster’s time at the helm to date is that she is playing it safe by playing to the base and we must wait until after the election to see ‘the real Arlene’.

However, this does not excuse squandering the perceptible cross-community goodwill – or relief, at any rate – that greeted her coronation.

Any leader should have found the words to put that in the bank for later development – and any leader of unionism should know that one day they will need it.

Instead of a rising chair, there is a rising sense that we have seen the real Arlene already.