Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: Arlene Foster's visit to Clones makes it a little bit easier to live in peace together

If DUP leader's gesture is matched by SF, we may be able to envisage return of power-sharing, writes Gail Walker

Arlene Foster speaking to the press at St Tiernach's Park, Clones
Arlene Foster speaking to the press at St Tiernach's Park, Clones
Gail Walker

By Gail Walker

Let's be blunt about this. The GAA has never been a part of the Ulster Protestant cultural background. As far as "sports" go, apart from it being yet another preserve of blokes looking for balls, there was the very clear message that Gaelic games was to do with being Irish, nationalist, possibly republican, and certainly Catholic. The vast majority of Protestants didn't then and don't now fall into any of those categories.

There is nothing wrong with anyone who does fall into those categories, of course. We all know - or should know - many people who fit categories we ourselves don't.

But the fact that Ulster Protestants don't fit those labels isn't their "fault". There will be categories that do apply to them which others in Northern Ireland won't find comfortable. That's fair enough also.

The GAA wasn't "for" unionists. In fact, it was actively "against" them.

Insofar as it was or is "against them", it will have a limited role in helping to move this jurisdiction or this population or this shared space closer to harmonious co-existence.

Insofar as it is able or prepared to be "for them", to that precise extent it will have an important peace-making, peace-building, peace-keeping role in our society.

Bearing in mind, of course, that, as a sporting organisation, its main function is not political, in spite of what the perception may be within its own ranks or outside them in some quarters. Its job isn't to "heal society". It's basically to run cup competitions and leagues across a number of sporting codes.

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But it certainly is the job of politicians to find solutions to very difficult problems in society.

In that context, Arlene Foster's attendance at the Ulster GAA football final in Clones, Co Monaghan, on Sunday, deserves our praise, our respect, our goodwill and, yes, our thanks.

There isn't a single person in Ireland who is so naive as not to know how difficult that visit must have been for the DUP leader.

Yes, people will say she is not the only one to have been horribly touched by the Troubles. That's certainly true.

But she is the only one who is in a position where her political and "peace building" responsibilities make demands on her personal life, her own memories and deepest hurts.

Leaders of other parties of course have their own challenges - but Foster, as the leader of the largest party and the one charged with the everyday custodianship of the hopes and fears of the unionist population on this island - has certain unique pressures.

What she does or doesn't do, what she says or doesn't say, carries more weight, and has greater impact. Which is why the courage of her step on Sunday was saluted by those who were also in attendance.

Because no one is really so naive as not to recognise the considerable distance her trip to Clones represented. As she said herself, she had been in the town on many occasions, because she lived not far away across the border, but this journey was very different.

It was courageous personally. Imagine Michelle O'Neill standing for the Queen in Windsor Park, with all the resonances and compromises that would entail. In Foster's case, all those were and are of the most personal kind.

They are also the sort that resonate very deeply with many people. Her father was seriously wounded in the conflict. But Foster has recognised that it is time to be courageous politically.

Taken with the other mood shifts which have very deliberately been signalled in recent weeks - the new rapport with the Muslim community during Eid, the decision to attend the PinkNews event later this week and her comments on that topic, the visit to the Fermanagh county board and now this historic visit to the Ulster Final, Foster is finally, after two-and-a-half years of turbulence, showing her mettle as leader.

One of Foster's tasks is to navigate a population which has felt itself under siege for decades into a whole new mindset which is not stricken with anxiety, defensiveness and caricature.

But another task - which became strikingly clear in the warm response of the big crowd to her on Sunday - is to realise the ambition of being a leader with a real inter-community purpose.

Any political leader anywhere seeks to represent as many voters as they can muster. Arlene Foster has understood, more than Dr Paisley could have imagined, or even than Peter Robinson could have thought, that there is a real desire now for the detoxification of politics in Northern Ireland and that she has the power to move all of us a few feet further down that road.

Obviously, there is more to come and it will be interesting - perhaps even heartening - to watch the direction in which she seeks to move the party and her electorate over the coming period.

But there is much to expect also from the new leadership of Sinn Fein. If, indeed, this is a new era - and there has been something to suggest that fresh perspectives have begun to open up within that tightly-knit movement - then, for the first time since the sad loss of Martin McGuinness, we may be able to envisage at last the return of devolved government. But make no mistake. This is still the DUP. It is still a unionist party and always will be.

The GAA is unlikely to fall within the comfort zone of most unionists in Northern Ireland for the foreseeable future. It won't suddenly become a defining feature of their cultural life.

And there will continue to be issues, such as the naming of sports grounds and play parks, which will still annoy and anger unionists, just as there will be reciprocal slights and insensitivities in return.

But active hostility must end. Occasions of animosity must be removed. The idea that any kind of general dislike or distaste should exist or is licensed because of what happened or was said in the past must be dispersed.

The future of the island isn't about jurisdiction, or who owns what, or who can be said to have won. It isn't about bragging rights. There have been too many dead for that.

The simple fact is this: it is about co-existence. Getting on and keeping on.

That's just the way it has to be. Principles survive and thrive when they recognise and respect other principles and are saluted in return.

Civility doesn't depend on uniformity of opinion.

It's already clear from the hugely positive public response to her serious engagement with what are some of her own electorate, after all, on Sunday afternoon, that Ulster - six counties, or nine - thanks to the leader of the DUP, is a slightly nicer place this morning.

Belfast Telegraph


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