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Welcome to the jungle - Long and Foster already trading barbs

Naomi Long isn't yet in the top Alliance job, but she's already trading barbs with Arlene Foster. So much for a new way of doing politics, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 12/10/2016

First Minister Arlene Foster has been criticised for her temper by Alliance’s Naomi Long (pictured)
First Minister Arlene Foster has been criticised for her temper by Alliance’s Naomi Long (pictured)
First Minister Arlene Foster (pictured) has been criticised for her temper by Alliance’s Naomi Long

The 16th-century Protestant preacher John Knox was so outraged by the idea of men being ruled by the weaker sex that he wrote an infamous pamphlet denouncing the "monstrous regiment" of women. He wouldn't be a happy bunny if he was alive today.

Not only is the Prime Minister a woman, but the First Ministers of both Scotland and Northern Ireland are women, too, as are the leaders of the Labour and Conservative parties in the Scottish parliament, Plaid Cymru and the Greens.

Ukip was recently led by a woman, as well. For only 18 days, admittedly, but it still counts.

In two weeks, the ranks of female bosses are set to grow with the inevitable elevation of Naomi Long as head of the Alliance Party, not least because she's the only one who seems to want the job.

That always helps.

She hasn't made a great start, unfortunately. Announcing the intention to put her name forward as David Ford's successor, the heir apparent even managed to insult First Minister Arlene Foster by telling yesterday's Belfast Telegraph that "you regularly see her temper fray" at the despatch box, adding that the DUP was now "even more arrogant and petulant" than under Peter Robinson. "A female DUP leader did not usher in a new way of doing politics at Stormont," Long complained.

It's strange that this view should be put forward by someone who, presumably, prides herself on being as strong and independent as any man.

Are women not allowed to be combative and spiky, too?

What if some of them are comfortable with the rough and tumble of political life at Stormont?

What about those of us who quite like our female politicians to be tough as old boots? Who says they should be more demure and, well, ladylike, just because they're women?

Arlene Foster is certainly not made of sugar, spice and everything nice, politically speaking, but then neither are Theresa May, Angela Merkel, Nicola Sturgeon, or Hillary Clinton.

They had to be as sturdy as their male rivals to get where they wanted to be. Sturdier, arguably.

That ought to be celebrated, because, without this quality, they'd never have made it. Running Northern Ireland is hardly a job for shrinking violets.

Naomi has evidently forgotten what Foster's predecessors were like. Former journalist turned Stormont Press guru David Gordon's book, The Fall Of The House Of Paisley, recalls one incident when Long asked the then DUP leader and Martin McGuinness how long they intended to "dine out" on the power-sharing deal.

In an unmannerly jibe at her weight, Paisley retorted: "I am sure the honourable lady enjoys dining out herself."

Then there was the time when Paisley's successor, Peter Robinson, told the Alliance woman bluntly to "dry her eyes" when unionist parties agreed an electoral pact to eject her from the East Belfast seat she had held as MP since unexpectedly snatching it from Robinson in 2010.

In comparing Arlene Foster unfavourably to her predecessor as DUP leader, Naomi Long is suffering from short-term memory loss. She's also falling into the trap of many feminists who pay lip service to the dream of having more female leaders, but then can't quite bring themselves to welcome the ones who actually make it.

Yes, we want powerful women at the top, they seem to say - just not these particular ones.

Naomi Long would be better off learning from Foster's grittiness. If there's one thing which has held back Alliance, it's a reputation as the Nice Party.

They were always reluctant to get their hands dirty in Ulster's political mud pit. That gave them a certain niche appeal to voters frustrated by the air of enmity that hung over the place, but meant they were all too often not taken seriously.

Long went some way towards challenging that cliche with her strong stance on the flags issue. By refusing to budge from her belief that flags should only fly over public buildings on designated days, despite death threats and months of loyalist intimidation, she showed that the Alliance Party was not just for wishy-washy compromise. It could draw a line in the sand and fight for it.

These bloodings are probably what made her the natural choice as David Ford's successor. Look at Westminster. Look at the EU. Look at the race for the White House. Politics everywhere is in a quarrelsome mood right now.

The Assembly's no different. There won't be group hugs there for a long while to come, as the DUP proved by immediately slapping down Naomi's attack on Arlene Foster as "puerile". Welcome to the jungle.

Long says she intends to lead Alliance "robustly". If she really means it, then it might prove fortunate that she has an opponent in the First Minister who'll be every bit as robust in return.

There's a reason why the DUP and Sinn Fein treat the Opposition with contempt, after all. Part of it is arrogance, yes; but another part is because the Opposition hasn't been up to the job of opposing. "Opposition day" at Stormont was embarrassing, as the soon-to-be Alliance leader acknowledges. A tough cookie like Long could be just what the doctor ordered.

She didn't tackle the flags protesters with some new, female, consensual spirit. She took them on. Faced them down. In her interview, she said she had "no regrets" about doing so.

She definitely needs to decide where Alliance stands, however. Insisting that "we don't define ourselves as a unionist party" is all very well, but parties need to know where the votes come from if they want to attract more of them.

Alliance does best in unionist constituencies, because it's a unionist party. Maybe only with a small 'u', but most supporters, Catholic and Protestant, back Alliance in the full knowledge that it's a vote for maintaining the Union.

Trying to be all things to all people is not a fresh start. Promising a more liberal stance on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion certainly is.

Northern Ireland has never had a party representing that way of thinking, and Long may find it harder to break down the inbuilt conservatism on family values than she hopes.

Perhaps she'll even find her own temper fraying at times. That's fine. Most voters don't expect politicians to be paragons of virtue, not even the female ones. They just want them to be effective.

That's her challenge. Once she gets that sorted out, she can turn to making politics in Northern Ireland more fluffy. Good luck with that.

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