Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster's GAA gesture deserves recognition, not cynicism

By Jon Tonge

'Come on Arlene' sang the crowd at St Tiernach's Park. I swear well she means…

Short of buying a season ticket for Brewster Park, Arlene Foster's attendance in support of Fermanagh could hardly have been more prominent. It was a good gesture, well received. The next verse of the great Dexy's song begins 'You're grown up, so grown up'. Appearances such as yesterday's help that perception.

Attending sport on a Sunday, standing for the Irish national anthem and cheering on a GAA team are hardly routine activities for DUP members, so Foster's willingness to reach out deserves recognition, not cynicism. Given the historic cold war across the island, the sight of a DUP leader standing respectfully for Amhrán na bhFiann was - rightly - warmly welcomed. Showing up at GAA, LGBT and Eid events indicates Foster's willingness to stretch her own constituency and portray her as a representative of a variety of Northern Irish communities.

On all current electoral evidence, there are virtually no votes in such gestures for the former First Minister. Cross-community vote transfers remain pitifully low, languishing in low single percentage figures at the last Westminster election. Foster is more likely to be blamed for Fermanagh's defeat than receive the votes of many of yesterday's attendees. In terms of gestures, we have been here before of course. The DUP's Edwin Poots and Peter Robinson attended GAA games. Sinn Fein's former Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin attended a Northern Ireland match.

A fat lot of good those attendances did in thawing political relationships across the divide. They did not prevent the ultimate collapse of the Executive, allowing ministers a lot more time to spend following their newly-acquired sporting teams. And crocodiles and curried yoghurts could sometimes be found blocking River Goodwill.

Sceptics may of course regard the current charm offensive as largely a means by which Foster wishes to resume her position as First Minister. Certainly, the DUP leader needs local power.

A revived set of political institutions needs more than sporting visits. And whilst the DUP voter base might not be too concerned by Arlene's Sunday in the sun, it doesn't mean that an Irish Language Act - the current main devolution breaker - is back on the agenda after the awkward collapse of a potential deal earlier this year. The current charm offensive - 'Arlserene' - needs to be accompanied by a serious set of conciliatory proposals to restore devolved government.

Given the shadow of the RHI Inquiry, the problem of the Irish Language Act and the capacity of the DUP to exert influence at Westminster, few would take a short price about the restoration of devolution.

Still, yesterday's events showed how sport can be a great healer. Foster could perhaps make progress by issuing a joint statement with Michelle O' Neill saying they don't mind so long as the Dubs don't win again. That might take some O'Neill-Mary Lou clearance. Personally, I'm now looking forward to the Foster-O'Neill joint declaration of support for England in the World Cup...

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool.

Belfast Telegraph

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