Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: Arlene Foster's tin-eared response to the abortion referendum is further proof of the distance she still has to travel to sell a truly inclusive unionism

The DUP leader's speech to the Policy Exchange in London was bold in parts, but does she have the courage to do what needs to be done, asks Alex Kane

Dublin celebrates the referendum result but Arlene Foster claims it won't affect the current abortion laws in Northern Ireland
Dublin celebrates the referendum result but Arlene Foster claims it won't affect the current abortion laws in Northern Ireland
Arlene Foster

Arlene Foster chose a bold title for her speech to the Policy Exchange conference in London last week: An Awkward Relationship? Ulster Unionism and the rest of the United Kingdom. It was a bold title for what was, in parts, a bold speech. Had she avoided the cheap jibe at nationalism ("Citizenship and rights are essentially unionist issues. They are issues we should set out to reclaim. Nationalism is, by its nature, narrow and exclusive."), the genuinely interesting parts of the speech wouldn't have been washed away by the inevitable reaction to one line.

Unionist leaders are not good at admitting there may have been problems in their relationship with the rest of the UK. That's why these comments are revelatory: "During the early years of my life, just as Northern Ireland was on the edge of the Union geographically, it often felt that it was also hanging over the edge politically and constitutionally. The relationship between unionism in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom has, at times, been strained. Northern Ireland's unionists will have been considered down the years, and perhaps still so by some today, as being hard to understand, or relate to."

That's an astonishing thing for someone like Foster to admit. The usual thing for unionist leaders on these occasions is to lump the blame on the IRA and pretend that everything in the pro-Union garden would be rosy if pesky republican terrorists (and Sinn Fein) weren't on the scene. She went further: "If we appeared a little different, there were understandable reasons. Unionists felt little-loved and saw dangers at every turn. Everyone seemed out to get them. And multiple Westminster governments. When our government acted against our interests and over our heads, it was those hurts that often ran the deepest."

She was right to say this. For too long there has been reluctance from unionists to admit that Northern Ireland wasn't quite "the same" as other parts of the UK.

We were seen as different. We were treated differently.

That's why so many unionist leaders before her - Faulkner, Molyneaux, McCusker, Paisley and Robinson - spoke often of British betrayal, sell-out and spinelessness.

I can't remember who first described Northern Ireland as a "place apart", but I know it was that sense of being different which made the relationship between unionism in Northern Ireland and unionism across Britain so fractious, so "awkward" (to borrow Foster's word).

Sign In

Her speech comes at a time when there are huge challenges for the entire UK and for Northern Ireland in particular. A few hours earlier, a QUB poll had put support for the Union in Northern Ireland at 50.3%. Too many unionists allowed themselves to be distracted by a figure of 21% for Irish unity; and, in allowing themselves to be distracted, ignored the fact that 50.3% is the lowest-ever level of support. But Foster didn't fall into that trap. She may not have said it in her speech, but I'm pretty sure she knows that complacency is not - and never can be - an option when it comes to protecting and promoting the Union.

She is also right to say: "Unionism is at its best when it is confident, outward-looking and welcoming. We must move forward with confidence." That will be a huge challenge. Look at the reaction across broad swathes of British/Irish media, social media and mainland politicians when the DUP struck their deal with the Conservatives. Much of it was bile. Some of it was simply inaccurate.

But what it did demonstrate was that so many people viewed the DUP as reactionary, sectarian, homophobic and embarrassing. And because the DUP is the lead - by some distance - party of unionism in Northern Ireland, the negative view of the DUP damages all of unionism here.

Further challenges lie in another paragraph: "The surest way to cement the Union is for Northern Ireland to be open and provide a successful environment in which to live and work. A Northern Ireland which embraces differing cultures and where minorities feel valued is one that few will choose to abandon."

The problem, of course, is that differing cultures and minorities here (and I don't just mean those who are pro-united Ireland) don't feel valued. Worse, their specific impression is that the DUP is hostile to them and has, when necessary, deployed a petition of concern to undermine the values, beliefs and rights that matter to them.

The biggest challenge for the DUP is shifting the perception that unionism in Northern Ireland would rather retain its "place apart" identity than embrace pan-UK unionism.

It would take a much longer piece to explain pan-UK unionism, so let me put it this way: if abortion, same-sex marriage et al are legal and equal across England, Scotland and Wales, then no unionist - let alone unionist party in Northern Ireland - should prevent that legality and equality.

If unionism at regional, or national, level doesn't embrace equality of citizenship for all, then it doesn't deserve to use the term unionist in its political description.

Her response to the referendum in the Republic was unnecessarily tin-eared; particularly since abortion rights in Northern Ireland are not the same as in the rest of the UK. While she says it's for the Assembly to decide: a) there is no Assembly and b) she gave no guarantee that the DUP would not try and muster the 30 votes necessary for a petition of concern.

Today's generation doesn't, generally speaking, have the same views on moral issues as Foster's generation - or mine.

I don't dismiss her moral compass, but as a political leader, she must be careful not to isolate, or repel, younger votes (or older ones), who agree with her on the Union, but not on secularism, abortion, same-sex-marriage and a broader liberal social agenda.

Where the DUP goes now is unclear. I remember Peter Robinson's "outreach" speech at a conference a few years ago, yet nothing happened afterwards. I remember Paisley being toppled when the DUP sensed that his 'Chuckle Brothers' relationship with Martin McGuinness was spooking the grassroots. I remember the impact of the "crocodiles" comment. I've already noted the jibe against nationalists in this speech.

When Foster says things like, "Unionism stands for pluralism and multi-culturalism; we are inclusive and welcome all", she has to be able to say it without immediately being drowned in evidence to the contrary.

But, as I say, there is important stuff in this speech: the most important being the acknowledgment that local unionism has had a long and often difficult relationship with its bigger partners. There is work to be done and repairs to be made.

Since 1998, Belfast has morphed into a city that could be lifted and placed in any other part of the United Kingdom - and be recognised and welcomed. That's what Foster must do with local unionism. It needs to be recognised and welcomed across the entire UK.

For local unionism, it's not just about keeping an electoral lead over pro-unity campaigners. It's about promoting a unionism and a Northern Ireland which makes a pro-unity argument much more difficult to promote.

Is it too late? Have Foster and the DUP the foresight and courage to do what they must know needs to be done?

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph