Belfast Telegraph

Varadkar must match pitch-perfect Arlene Foster's dignified note of reconciliation

The DUP leader's graceful speech down in Killarney will help soothe southern tensions over Brexit, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Judging by some of the praise heaped on Arlene Foster for crossing the border to attend the Killarney Economic Forum over the weekend, one would think that the DUP leader was a Victorian explorer heading off into strange and unexplored territory, where who knows what fate might await her.

Killarney is a perfectly lovely town, where the greatest danger facing most visitors is that their ears get assaulted by the sound of an over enthusiastic ceilidh band. She was hardly at risk of ending up in a cannibals' cooking pot, like the missionaries of old.

The DUP is even making a big deal of the fact that the former First Minister made a five-hour overnight journey to attend the conference, as if it wasn't normal for political leaders to travel long distances to attend various events.

It's grimly symptomatic of the state of politics in Northern Ireland right now that these everyday activities are still presented as extraordinary gestures.

Friendly interaction between neighbours should be a regular occurrence, not an annual event, undertaken as if to satisfy some new year's resolution to do something vaguely reconciliatory before slipping back into bad old habits.

Having said all that, Foster's appearance at the conference was a significant moment that deserves to be marked. Her aim in going to Killarney was both to explain the DUP's position on Brexit, which has sparked much confused reaction in the Irish Republic, and to reassure the neighbours that it's not some kneejerk jingoistic gesture that will undo years of good work.

That matters because, whilst debate in Britain still tends to proceed as if the UK is the only place affected, Irish businesses are fearful about the effect that Brexit could have on trade, and have not exactly been enlightened by the answers provided until now by the British government.

Here was a chance to soothe some of those tensions over why the DUP is supporting such a strong pro-Brexit stance in London when a majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain.

Some of that criticism has been over the top. The party was eurosceptic from the start, so it's hardly a surprise that they're enthusiastic about leaving the EU; whilst Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, faces nothing like the same criticism for angling for Britain to stay in the EU despite the fact that most of his countrymen voted to get out.

But the DUP's position has caused some head scratching down south, and it's right that she went there in a placatory mood, recognising that a prosperous Republic is in the interests of Northern Ireland too, and that Brexit must not mean "pulling up the drawbridge, building a wall and cutting ourselves off from our nearest neighbours".

She spoke warmly of the positive relationship between the two parts of the island, at the same time as making it clear that her unionism was in no way diminished by wanting to see continuing close cooperation.

The personal touches worked well too, as she recalled her own childhood close to the border, including her grandmother going back and forth on a bicycle to sell lace in Clones. Insofar as a balance needs to be struck between what used to be termed, in officialise, the Strand One and Strand Two elements of peacebuilding, Arlene Foster's speech was pretty much pitch-perfect, whilst her image of north and south as semi-detached houses, which appear the same from the outside but are quite different within, called to mind David Trimble's equally symbolic speech some years ago in which he acknowledged that Northern Ireland, whilst solidly built, had been a 'cold house' for Catholics.

The logic of her argument suggests that the DUP wants to see the softest of borders and it remains to be seen how those good intentions can be squared with support for a hard Brexit; but one thing at a time.

It was worth a five-hour overnight journey to deliver such a graceful speech.

It's also significant that Mrs Foster took the chance whilst there to meet up with Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin. Relations with the Fine Gael led government in Dublin are at a particularly low point right now, as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney adopt a much more stridently nationalistic tone, perhaps in an effort to deflect the longstanding mockery of their party as 'West Brits'. Striking the same dignified note of reconciliation should be high on their list of priorities too.

Despite styling itself as the 'Republican Party', Fianna Fail is the one which has made the greater moves in recent months to understand the unionist position, sticking with it even as talks on restoring devolution continued to falter and Dublin talked tough on the border.

Meetings between Mrs Foster and Mr Martin are no substitute for a positive working relationship between north and south at a governmental level, but every little helps. That he shares her distaste for Dublin's current bout of "megaphone diplomacy" points to a better alternative.

It's also much more than Sinn Fein has stirred itself to do in the past year. Comparing gestures to see which of the two sides is making most effort at reconciliation is a tiresome activity, but it can be telling. Sinn Fein actually appointed an officer for Unionist Outreach some years ago, but unionists could be forgiven for wondering what said title holder does, considering that the only sort of outreach that Sinn Fein seems interested in undertaking lately has been the sort that a fist performs when reaching out to sock an opponent in the face.

Arlene Foster did not go to Co Kerry under any illusions that she would win round Irish critics of her stance on Brexit, but simply to exchange views - to build bridges, as former Irish President Mary McAleese, famously advocated.

Sinn Fein, by contrast, only seems interested in listening to what unionists think if there's a chance, at the end of it, that they'll stop being so stubborn and row in behind a united Ireland.

Anything which smacks of that coercion is doomed to fail. That's why the trip to Killarney mattered. Relations within Northern Ireland do not look like improving any time soon, but there is huge scope for unionists to forge links with open-minded elements in the Republic.

Concentrating on mutual interests rightly prioritises the practical over the airy fairy. Economic matters do not concern one side more than another. The cost of living is the same whether you're a unionist or nationalist. Young people still need jobs regardless of their political affiliations.

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