ANALYSIS Fewer gestures and more bridge-building needed to kick-start Stormont talks
For someone who once said she wasn’t into gesture politics, Arlene Foster has been busy in recent weeks.
Uncharitable types may suggest that by being member of an Assembly which doesn’t exist she has time on her hands, but Foster’s public transformation, on the surface at least, is quite remarkable.
Last week, she attended a GAA match in Clones over the Irish border. Aside from one DUP member criticising her for breaking the Sabbath, Foster received almost universal praise. Given her previous terse comments about Irish nationalism, most notably comparing Sinn Fein to a crocodile, to stand for the Irish national anthem in the same arena as Michelle O’Neill was quite the step.
The previous week, she went to Eid celebrations in Belfast. Her predecessor Peter Robinson once said he would not trust Muslims who adhered to Sharia law but would “trust them to go to the shops” for him, so this was also welcome progress.
Reports have suggested that Foster, particularly in the aftermath of the Irish abortion referendum, is becoming uncomfortable with the heightened sense that Northern Ireland is a place apart from the rest of the UK, hence such gestures. Equally, some believe that such steps are part of a wider choreography which will see the dormant Stormont talks process rebooted.
For their part, Sinn Fein figures including the Old Bailey bomber Gerry Kelly recently pressed the flesh with Prince Charles while the party’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, spoke of how pleased she was to be in Londonderry as opposed to Derry.
However, as we know, perception is one thing and reality is another. If the variety of gestures which have been foisted on the Northern Irish populace by politicians – Captain Terence O’Neill becoming the first unionist leader to visit a Catholic school or David Trimble and John Hume taking the stage together at a U2 concert like two awkward teachers at a school disco – worked then surely a stable middle ground would have emerged, rather than the polarisation we are faced with now.
Gestures, therefore, amount to very little. To properly grist the mill of social and political interaction among the people of Northern Ireland, glad-handing needs to be accompanied by action. Both parties are wedded to their negotiating position; anyone who believed that the talks were about to get fired up again would have been sorely disappointed by a Northern Ireland Office press release this week detailing the Government’s continued plans for running the Province in Stormont’s absence.
The futility of such gesturing was proven by Foster last Thursday at Stormont, where she attended and spoke at a reception hosted by PinkNews. The presence of the leader of a party which since its inception in 1971 has been a cold house for anyone from the LGBT community was a noticeable gesture but simply that - a gesture. After saying 2just because we disagree on marriage does not mean that I don’t value the LGBT community", Foster simply reiterated a DUP red line rather than engaging in anything constructive.
If the DUP were concerned with Northern Ireland being perceived as a place apart, they would move beyond this obtuse point. For a party which has called for Northern Ireland’s "equality of citizenship" in the UK to be respected during the Brexit talks, then surely accepting laws which are norms in the rest of the UK is not such a quantum leap.
Foster’s gesturing was put in stark contrast by a speech delivered at the same event by Robin Swann, the unassuming leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. Swann, who seems to have grasped that equal marriage in Northern Ireland does not somehow damage the Union, stated bluntly he would not "stand by and allow unionism to become a byword for intolerance" before going on to detail the steps his party had taken internally to become a comfortable home for LGBT people.
Swann also, correctly, acknowledged that for its long-term survival unionism must expand its base. Despite a range of contradictory polling recently, one thing is clear; if a referendum on Irish unity is fought by unionists on a narrow quasi-religious base which leaves Northern Ireland’s citizens at a disadvantage to their southern neighbours when it comes to rights, that campaign will struggle amid demographic shifts.
At another speaking engagement, this time in the Fife sunshine addressing the massed ranks of Scottish Orangemen, Foster called for a bridge to be built between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Perhaps fewer gestures and more bridge-building from all sides in Northern Ireland would be a better use of everyone’s time.
* Andrew McQuillan works in public affairs and writes extensively on Northern Ireland