Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster has performed an impressive act of political self-reinvention, while Gerry Adams reduced to parroting empty slogans about Irish unity

All changed, changed utterly, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Arlene Foster is in talks with Theresa May
Arlene Foster is in talks with Theresa May
Gerry Adams

It's one of the oldest cliches in the book, but a week really is a long time in politics. Exactly seven days ago the election in Northern Ireland looked set to throw up another dose of the same old, same old.

Instead, everything has changed, changed utterly, as Arlene Foster's DUP found itself in the fortuitous position of which all smaller parties dream, negotiating to extract concessions from a minority Tory government in return for keeping Prime Minister Theresa May in No.10.

This outcome was none of the DUP's doing; it was simply an accident of electoral arithmetic.

But politics is about striking when the iron is hot, and Mrs Foster, it seemed, was ready to strike.

Since last Thursday she has played a blinder, insisting from the start on using her newly-won political capital for the benefit of all in Northern Ireland, reportedly based on the principles already set out in a private agreement with the Conservatives ahead of the 2015 election.

Basically, it comes down to more money, more help to secure foreign investment, and more consideration for local economic needs.

It hasn't been without controversy. Over half-a-million people signed a UK-wide petition against any Tory/DUP deal, all so carried away by a feverish mob mentality that they seemed to believe Mrs Foster was set to march on Downing Street and demand the Orange Order be allowed down the Falls Road, or similar such nonsense.

Some amusement could be forgiven at the unexpected clash between the DUP's more traditional supporters and socially liberal modern Britain, but this was hysteria with an ugly, intolerant undercurrent.

Mrs Foster didn't rise to the bait. She simply got on with the job of negotiating the best deal for Northern Ireland, and only a begrudger would resent her enjoying this moment in the sun.

There was, after all, a whole section in the Sinn Fein election manifesto titled 'Ending Tory Cuts', which demanded more funding for the NHS, schools, housing and agriculture. Those who pretend to care that the poorest continue to suffer the harshest effects of the recession a decade on from the financial crash have no cause for grievance if Foster returns from Westminster with measures to offset austerity.

On a personal level, she's been vindicated too.

Like May, Foster had a good start as leader, winning a decisive victory for the DUP in last year's Assembly election before heading into the Executive with the late Martin McGuinness in every expectation that it would last a full term.

By Christmas it had all gone horribly wrong as Sinn Fein, seeing the chance of claiming a scalp over the RHI controversy, demanded that she step aside pending an inquiry. She didn't.

Consequently there was another Assembly election in which Mrs Foster managed to antagonise the most mild-mannered of constitutional nationalists by appearing to disparage the Irish language.

Sinn Fein almost managed to overtake the DUP when the votes were counted. Her internal critics were far from happy. There were rumblings against her.

Another election, this time for Westminster, offered the prospect of redemption, but almost immediately Foster was accused of misogyny for daring to notice that Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill puts a lot of effort into her appearance. It was a silly row, wholly manufactured by people who've made a career out of taking offence, but it summed up how nothing was going right for her.

As the summer begins, she's right back on top, with every chance not only to put her critics back in their box, but to build a reputation as the most successful unionist leader of her generation.

After all the personal abuse she's endured, she deserves to take immense satisfaction from that.

She also has a golden opportunity to show that the Union can work for the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland. Any unionist who didn't relish that prospect would barely be worthy of the name.

Even more important, though, Foster has reasserted the primary function of politics. It's not about protest, or gestures, or saying the right things, or getting a fashionable hashtag trending on Twitter.

It's about being in a position where you can repay the trust the people have shown in you by giving back to them what they need. By contrast, Sinn Fein's pettiness has been brutally exposed. In his personal message in the manifesto, Gerry Adams declared that "a vote for Sinn Fein... is a vote for representation where it counts, not wasting time at Westminster".

If Mrs Foster returns with a package of measures to improve real people's lives in Northern Ireland, it will be impossible to argue again that time at Westminster is "wasted", or that Sinn Fein's preferred option of sitting up in Connolly House sulking is the better way.

Even now the party still says it wouldn't take its seats at Westminster to secure a similarly beneficial deal.

In other words, relieving austerity and reviving the economy must play second fiddle to the cultish obsessions of the republican movement.

If the DUP can further use its influence to stop a hard border after Brexit the party will have done a massive service for the whole island of Ireland, and nationalists should be generous enough to acknowledge it.

Foster is a politician. Of course she does all this knowing that her party will get significant electoral advantage from taking centre stage in British life. But that's politics, too.

Rewards come from doing the right thing. Those who'd rather do nothing have no cause to quibble if others enjoy a boost from taking on the challenges that they themselves have shirked.

What does all this mean for Stormont?

Well, Adams put it best when he said in that same manifesto that the election result would "shape the talks to re-establish the Executive". It certainly has.

The DUP insisted all along that it has no "red lines" and simply wants Sinn Fein to return to Stormont and get on with the job of government.

Foster's practical and straightforward approach to negotiating a deal at Westminster demonstrates that she is genuine about wanting to make political institutions on both sides of the Irish Sea work.

Sinn Fein's excuses for not doing likewise have been exposed as hollow. It faces a simple choice - return to Stormont and start discussing like grown-ups how to make best use of whatever package Foster's heavy lifting has won, or else to retreat further into bitterness and ingratitude, parroting empty slogans about Irish unity.

That shouldn't even be a difficult decision.

Belfast Telegraph


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