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Eilis O'Hanlon: Arlene Foster forges relationship with PM while Mary Lou McDonald embarks on madcap pan-nationalist escapade

Why is it acceptable for nationalists to be gregarious but wrong when unionists are clubbable, asks Eilis O'Hanlon


DUP leader Arlene Foster

DUP leader Arlene Foster

Getty Images

Sinn Fein counterpart Mary Lou McDonald

Sinn Fein counterpart Mary Lou McDonald

DUP leader Arlene Foster

It wasn't so long ago that an Irish-American newspaper declared that "the pan-nationalist front has been confined to the dustbin of history." Brexit changed all that. The Irish Government and Sinn Fein now sing from the same hymn sheet. The SDLP is more bullish about a border poll. So-called civic nationalists regularly come together to write open letters expressing their collective outrage.

Emboldened, Sinn Fein now seems to be trying to extend the pan-nationalist front beyond Ireland, as party president Mary Lou McDonald told the Plaid Cymru conference in Swansea on Saturday that it was time to "build a pan-Celtic political culture to defeat Toryism".

It was as if the disparate Celtic tribes of these islands were being urged to unite and wreak revenge against the Anglo-Saxons who overthrew them all those centuries ago.

If nothing else, it's a sign of how unnerved republicans are by the growing closeness between Arlene Foster and Boris Johnson as the deadline for Britain's exit from the EU nears.

Tory Prime Ministers have always felt duty-bound to make warm noises about the Union, but the relationship between senior unionists and Governments down the years has not always been cordial.

The speed with which the DUP leader rowed in behind Johnson's latest offer to the EU, which would see Northern Ireland remain at least partly aligned to EU single market rules, with the chance to vote periodically on whether to continue the arrangement, hints at a much closer co-operation going forward.

Nationalists who've become used to having Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in their corner are acting as if it simply isn't fair for Foster and Number 10 to be similarly in tune.

Their only way of explaining it is to conclude that the DUP must either be in the pocket of the Tory hard-Right, or vice versa.

Instead it could simply be that the Prime Minster is serious about cultivating pan-unionist fellowship, and Foster is open to being cultivated in the hope it will bear fruit in future.

It's certainly a sea change from the days of Theresa May. As the Belfast Telegraph's Suzanne Breen wrote following the previous PM's departure: "She wasn't clubbable - and that's no bad thing - but she didn't listen or build alliances."

In many ways May was like an old-style unionist. Very straight, proper and decent, but with a complete absence of the interpersonal skills that, to put it bluntly, make people like you and I want to help out when you're in trouble.

Theresa May wasn't a woman to be seen in the House of Commons bar.

She wasn't one for small talk or gossip.

Unionists have suffered the same problem in politics going back years.

In his book the former head of the Civil Service Kenneth Bloomfield noted that unionist benches in the Commons in the more distant past included "some congenial and clubbable people, capable of making friends", which he contrasted with "their often unlikeable and abrasive successors". Professor Alvin Jackson makes a similar observation in his own book on Northern Ireland, contrasting the "personally clubbable" Edward Carson with David Trimble, UUP leader during Good Friday Agreement talks, who he describes as an "angry and remote Irish Protestant".

That's probably unfair, but Trimble could certainly be prickly.

Even his wife Daphne once admitted he was "a buttoned-up sort of person". For years when people in England thought of unionists, it was Ian Paisley's booming intransigence which came to mind. They regarded unionists as sour and dour.

According to her biographer, Margaret Thatcher found it "not easy" to deal with Paisley, hardly a surprise, whilst those who might have made natural allies, such as Enoch Powell when he was MP for South Down, often burned their bridges with her by sternly denouncing Thatcher for "treachery".

Nationalists were easier to get along with. The former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald's congeniality undoubtedly helped get the Anglo-Irish Agreement over the line, even if the Iron Lady did once fall asleep whilst he was speaking at length, as was his wont.

Not all nationalists were adept at forging friendships. Seamus Mallon remembers in his own recent book how Secretary of State Sir Patrick Mayhew once told him he couldn't get John Hume to talk to him, and that the SDLP leader at the time "treated him with derision, using 'uncouth language'".

Mallon himself was much more suited to winning round opponents one on one. Quite simply, other MPs enjoyed his company and were therefore prepared to listen to him.

Sinn Fein soon learned the lesson, and studiously cultivated the friendship of Mo Mowlam when she was Secretary of State, as well as other members of Tony Blair's circle, to the unctuous extent, apparently, of bringing along presents for the Blair children.

Trimble even recalls a suggestion by Gerry Adams that they go away for the weekend to get to know one another better. The UUP leader leaned towards Martin McGuinness and said: "You know, Martin, just because you get to know someone better, it doesn't mean you like them any more."

Whilst a weekend with Adams might be too unsettling a sacrifice, traditional unionists always gave the impression that they regarded the nurturing of interpersonal relationships as unworthy of them.

They were at Westminster to work, and to defend the Union, not to sit gossiping with other MPs in the bars and tearooms. Let's just say that, whilst hugely capable as a politician, Foster's predecessor Peter Robinson wasn't the sort of man you'd invite on a stag weekend.

These days aloofness is not a viable option for politicians. They need the likeability factor, which, considering that polls say seven in 10 voters in Northern Ireland don't like Foster, presents a problem to the DUP.

Her efforts to overcome that hurdle have been patchy. Fingers crossed, some of Johnson's undoubted affability might rub off on her.

She is never going to be a gregarious, "hail fellow, well met" type, but every little helps.

It remains to be seen whether the new alliance between Johnson and Foster rests entirely on what they can get from each other, or whether it's what Aristotle called a friendship of the good, based on an appreciation of one's another virtues and characters.

Sunday's statement from the Ulster Unionists was scathing about her support for Johnson's deal. They clearly think the DUP has gone too far towards potentially putting a border in the Irish Sea in the effort to keep Johnson sweet.

Whichever it is, it has to be better to forge a positive, constructive relationship with the Prime Minister than embark on some madcap pan-Celtic escapade that only increases the prospect of a damaging no-deal.

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