Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Will DUP's Arlene Foster have to eat her words on Irish language?

The DUP leader may have extended the hand of friendship on this contentious issue... but Eilis O'Hanlon wonders if it could be withdrawn during heat of pre-Christmas general election campaign

Arlene Foster at the DUP’s annual conference at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Belfast last weekend
Arlene Foster at the DUP’s annual conference at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Belfast last weekend
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

In an unexpected plot twist, Northern Ireland suddenly finds itself with one of the most liberal abortion regimes in Europe. Same-sex marriage is legal. Soon there may be a customs border down the Irish Sea.

Only now does the DUP, which is, rightly or wrongly, vehemently opposed to all these seismic changes, decide to ease its red lines on an Irish Language Act in an effort to get Stormont back up and running.

In light of the abject failure of every previous effort to restore devolution, some might say this isn't so much a case of locking the stable door after the horse has bolted as standing at the farm gate shaking a bag of oats in the hope of enticing the horse back when it's already been melted down for glue.

To be fair, someone has to make the first move to break the deadlock, so might this one possibly work against all odds?

It certainly made a conspicuous change to see Arlene Foster striking such an amelioratory tone at her weekend party conference in Belfast as she told delegates - and, perhaps more pertinently, the watching media - that the DUP "will not be found wanting" if "we can find a way to craft language and culture laws that facilitate those who speak the (Irish) language".

All assuming, she quickly added, that doing so does not "infringe on or threaten others". There are more than enough caveats there if the DUP needs to subsequently backtrack, but even if she means every word, why should nationalists believe her any more than she believes them when they pretend periodically to be "reaching out" to unionists?

These exercises in public reconciliation never last. Arlene has been here before.

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After dropping her infamous "crocodile" gaffe during the election that immediately followed the collapse of Stormont, Foster tried to make amends by issuing soothing noises about the Irish language then, too. That charm offensive quickly hit the buffers.

She's doing it again now, talking about working towards "a fair deal" in which there are "no winners and losers", and pledging to "rekindle a generosity of spirit that has been missing for some time". Unionists, she even said, must be "inclusive, embracing and welcoming to all" (apart, presumably, from former fairweather friends in the Tory party).

This could all have been written by Lord Alderdice at his height, rather than a DUP leader facing in to what she claims is the biggest threat to the Union since, well, the last one.

After being unceremoniously dumped by the Prime Minister, Foster seems to be pinning her hopes on an appeal to a "one nation" mentality when it comes to Northern Ireland, despite taking the exact opposite stance on the UK's departure from the EU for the past three years, when she acted as if she could have Brexit without any negative consequences for the Union or for cross-community trust in Northern Ireland.

Significantly, though, these latest overtures have not been followed by concrete proposals for breaking the deadlock. The question of what next was left floating vaguely in the air.

As such, it does seem more like an effort to retrieve something positive from what has quickly turned into a bad situation for the party, or at least take the moral high ground in advance of the general election.

It's not a bad ploy to call Sinn Fein's bluff, if that's what Foster is doing. For all its puffing and blowing, Sinn Fein has precious little interest in running Northern Ireland. Republicans have their eye on the bigger prize of Irish unity, and why wouldn't they? Brexit has changed everything.

But if Sinn Fein did decide to take up the DUP's latest vague offer to restore Stormont in return for an Irish Language Act, they would be looking to do so as the largest party, and how long would that "generosity of spirit" survive if Michelle O'Neill was in position to become First Minister after the next Assembly election, and Foster only came in as runner-up?

It's all very well to talk of there being no winners and losers, until you lose.

As things stand Foster also has to look over her shoulder at the Ulster Unionists, who have a new leader in waiting, a situation which usually results in a fillip for any party.

Steve Aiken has, in his wisdom, decided that targeting the DUP is the party's best bet to regaining relevance, leading to some over-optimistic headlines such as: 'Does the Ulster Unionist party have Arlene Foster rattled?'

Foster is rattled all right, but it would be a stretch to say that it was the UUP which is the cause.

Aiken may have taken the larger party by surprise by pre-emptively ruling out an election pact with the DUP, even if that risked the UUP finishing up with no Westminster seats, and unionists losing seats overall; but in-fighting is hardly a guaranteed route to popularity among unionist voters, who are feeling vulnerable enough as it is without falling out with each other into the bargain.

The UUP has to differentiate itself from its more hardline rival somehow, but whichever route they ultimately choose, the Ulster Unionists do look increasingly like a faded shadow of a once great party.

At times they even make the SDLP look dynamic. Aiken even seemed to be selected by a process of elimination rather than enthusiasm. He is gritting his teeth and getting on with it, doing his duty like the ex-Royal Navy officer that he is, but anyone who wakes up to find that they've become UUP leader these days has little space to relax.

With three leaders in as many years, the honeymoon periods are getting shorter each time. He's not even officially in the job yet and he's already facing criticism from inside the party for potentially handing seats to Sinn Fein.

Like Boris Johnson, Foster is quite lucky in that respect. If the Prime Minister was up against any halfway decent Labour leader in Opposition he'd be on the ropes. Instead, both face weak rivals.

Foster can afford to make a few slips before unionist voters, faced with the sectarian reality of a political system which rewards the biggest bruisers, take a risk on an untested UUP.

That gives Foster some time to turn her fine words at the weekend into meaningful proposals.

After that comes the harder work of actually meaning it, then putting it into practice, day after day, year after year.

The odds must still be against this "no winners or losers" rhetoric even surviving what is bound to a bruising pre-Christmas election campaign, never mind longer.

Belfast Telegraph


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