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Arlene Foster is a good, decent person - not a bigot

By Eoghan Harris

Mary Lou McDonald sat in the Prime Time studio last Tuesday giving the Sisters of Charity a hard time and going on about "gruesome and harrowing" burials as if she had never heard of Jean McConville.

Sinn Fein doesn't do irony. Neither, it seems, do RTE presenters when listening to it pontificating.

David McCullough, who is normally not slow with smart-alec interruptions of centrist politicians, placidly listened to McDonald's lecture without any challenge to her credentials.

That complacent silence is why Sinn Fein spokespersons are so successful. RTE and BBC reporters are so caught up in the peace processing consensus that they fail to call them out.

Politicians are even more remiss than RTE reporters. Asked about doing business with Sinn Fein, they dodge round the only objection that matters to Middle Ireland - Sinn Fein's links with the IRA past, present and future.

Charlie Flanagan, before the dead hand of the Department of Foreign Affairs descended on him, was no sucker for Sinn Fein ploys, and now lets it off the hook.

Denying the Assembly results would affect the Republic, he said the problem with Sinn Fein was its economic policies.

Why not point out the simple objection to Sinn Fein in the mind of Middle Ireland - that Sinn Fein is not to be trusted because it is linked to a private army which carries out crimes? What is the problem with saying that? Feeding the fiction that Sinn Fein is a normal party is an accurate example of what Arlene Foster was trying to say about feeding the crocodile.

Last week, she told The Impartial Reporter she was talking about Sinn Fein and not the Irish Language Act when she used the crocodile phrase.

Most objective observers accept that - just as she accepts that her loose use of language allowed Sinn Fein to demonise her.

But I doubt she has learned a deeper lesson about the leading role of language in dealing with Sinn Fein in the future. Her continuing lack of political cop became clear in the following statement: "I have always made it clear that if people want to converse or learn the Irish language they should be allowed to do so."

The problem here is with the word "allowed", which conveys the sense that people are being permitted to learn Irish. All Foster had to do was substitute the word "encouraged" for "allowed" and she had Sinn Fein on the back foot.

So what if dullards in the DUP whined? One of Foster's tasks as a leader is to educate her party.

Time she told them that Irish Protestants cherished the Irish language in the 19th century when the Roman Catholic Church had lost interest. Time she reminded the rest of us that, just as Stalinists destroyed the word socialism by using it as a club, so Sinn Fein is destroying Irish by using it as a cultural cudgel to beat unionists.

Foster could finish off Sinn Fein's cynical use of Irish by looking levelly at them across the Assembly chamber and saying this: "The Irish language belongs to all of us in Northern Ireland, it is not some petty dialect to be degraded by your cheap attempts to politicise it."

Foster has never grasped that the surest way to shaft Sinn Fein is to make nice to nationalists.

And she has bad form in that area.

Foster was a thorn in the side of David Trimble, the first, and indeed last, unionist leader to out-think and out-flank Sinn Fein.

He did so with a clever campaign of carrot and stick which culminated in the Belfast Agreement - which was such a poor deal for Sinn Fein it could not bring itself to sign it.

Trimble shocked some in his party by consulting Roman Catholics and former Republicans so as to sharpen his strategy and speeches.

Determined to reach out to nationalists in his Nobel Prize speech, he accepted the following draft from me which defined his pluralist vision for Northern Ireland:

"Ulster unionists, fearful of being isolated on the island, built a solid house, but it was a cold house for Catholics. And Northern nationalists, although they had a roof over their heads, seemed to us as if they meant to burn the house down."

The 'cold house for Catholics' phrase was widely welcomed, except by Sinn Fein and its supporters who hated the speech because it showed unionists were not bigots.

Sinn Fein also knew that by backing the Belfast Agreement and reaching out to nationalists in his Nobel Prize speech, Trimble was using a version of the old Tory strategy of killing Home Rule with kindness.

But this time round it worked. The reason it worked was that Trimble and his wife, Daphne, really believed in treating nationalists with respect.

Be clear: I categorically do not believe Arlene Foster is a bigot. Everyone I trust who knows her says she is a good, decent person. But right now she is not the leader unionism needs. To become that leader, she will have to follow the strategy of her old foe, David Trimble.

She should also channel Trimble's dry sense of humour. When introduced as Baron Trimble of Lisnagarvey, the old name for Lisburn, he sometimes asks if there are any Irish speakers in his audience. That's because the even older name for Lisnagarvey was Lios na gCearrbhach, which means 'fort of the gamester'.

Gamester. Sinn Fein likes to play mind games. But rather than running away, unionists should respond by pressing the nuclear button that blows the jokers out of the game.

The nuclear button is marked respect. But unionists should not simply respect the Irish language, they should learn it.

Let's see Michelle O'Neill talk down a member of the DUP who speaks better Irish than Gerry Adams - and that's setting a very low bar.

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