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Why signalling a willingness to let bygones be bygones doesn't mean the problems between the Prime Minister and Arlene Foster will suddenly evaporate

At least the issues separating the former First Minister and Prime Minister are nowhere near as intractable as those dividing the DUP and Sinn Fein, writes Eilis O'Hanlon


Problems still exist between Arlene Foster (pictured) and Theresa May as well as between Mrs Foster and Sinn Fein leader Michelle O'Neill

Problems still exist between Arlene Foster (pictured) and Theresa May as well as between Mrs Foster and Sinn Fein leader Michelle O'Neill

Getty Images

Theresa May

Theresa May


Michelle O'Neill

Michelle O'Neill

Problems still exist between Arlene Foster (pictured) and Theresa May as well as between Mrs Foster and Sinn Fein leader Michelle O'Neill

The comedian Shazia Mirza was asked a few years ago to imagine what the world would be like if women were in charge. She didn't hesitate. "We'd get things done quicker and we would solve a lot of problems by chatting," she said.

This idea that society would be a better place if it was run by women has always been a tempting one. Nor is that very surprising, considering the chaos which thousands of years of rule by men has brought in its wake.

It's fair to say, though, that the stand-up comic's comments have not aged well. Those who argue that men should step aside and give the so-called "second sex" a shot at running the country have, after all, got their way in recent times.

The Prime Minister is a woman. The leader of the DUP, and former First Minister, is a woman. The two people who are, in name at least, in charge of Sinn Fein are both women. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is a woman. Scotland is led by a woman, too.

According to the utopian fantasy, these matriarchal figures should have come together by now and "chatted" their way to a bright new future, free from stalemate and strife.

Instead, the political landscape has rarely looked more fractious, or divided, and the prospects of that changing anytime soon are right up there with Shergar's chances of winning this year's Grand National.

The cause is easy enough to identify: Brexit has lobbed a grenade into the heart of the body politic and it turns out - shock, horror - that being a woman doesn't offer any obvious solution to the questions raised by the 2016 referendum result. A change of chromosones doesn't change the facts.

The simmering pot has finally come to the boil, as Theresa May, having delayed her date with destiny before Christmas, lost Tuesday's House of Commons vote on her dog's dinner of a deal with the EU by a crushing margin.

She may have survived the no confidence vote tabled by Labour's Jeremy Corbyn yesterday, but that has only bought her a little more time.

She still needs to magic up something from nothing and is heading back to Brussels for further talks, banking on more concessions to get an amended version of her deal across the line in the House of Commons.

If there's one glimmer of light in all this, it's that DUP leader Arlene Foster has reportedly indicated that she's ready to try and fix her own broken relationship with the Prime Minister, with senior sources in Westminster describing previous bitter clashes between the two women as "water under the bridge".

The worry is that, platitudes aside, history has not set a good precedent in that regard. It's been all of two years since the relationship between the DUP and its former partner in the Northern Ireland Executive broke down and Mrs Foster and Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill remain as far apart as ever. Sometimes, there can be too much rough water flowing under that proverbial bridge.

The one thing Mrs Foster and Mrs May have in their favour is that the differences between them ought to be nowhere near as great as between Mrs Foster and Michelle O'Neill.

Arlene Foster and Theresa May are both on the Right, politically, and both are unionists, who purport to prioritise the interests of the UK as a whole.

If they can't reach agreement, what hope is there for a meeting of minds with the rest, with whom they don't even share those values?

What complicates matters is that neither woman is particularly good at making friends, politically speaking. They seem better at getting other people's backs up rather than winning them round.

Watching Mrs May try to forge any kind of consensus is excruciatingly awkward, while Mrs Foster's rictus grin when forced to deal with those who aren't fully on her side often seems forced.

"Arlene has a temper, a fierce temper," one MLA was quoted as saying when she became party leader back in 2015. "It's a spasm of rage she can't control." It's no accident that neither women enjoys the unconditional loyalty of her party.

More seriously, signalling a willingness to let bygones be bygones won't make the issues still causing friction between Arlene Foster and Theresa May to suddenly vanish.

Mrs Foster's criticism of the Prime Minister over her handling of EU negotiations has been blistering in recent months, with the Englishwoman's abject failure to stand up to Brussels over those parts of the Withdrawal Agreement which are most onerous to unionists causing the biggest bone of contention.

"I don't think she even asked to get rid of the backstop," the DUP leader remarked contemptuously just a couple of days ago.

That this strategy has failed spectacularly can no longer be denied by Downing Street. The backstop is hated by all sides in parliament. At the very least, Theresa May must now ask Brussels either to tear up that part of the agreement, or, more likely, put a legally enforceable limit on the length of time the UK will be trapped into a customs union.

It's by no means certain that Europe will agree to such a demand. Indeed, all the indications are that they're not budging. Even if they did, there's no guarantee that this would be enough to satisfy the DUP.

It has certainly rowed back lately on its support for the hardest of Brexits. Interviews with Arlene Foster and her deputy, Nigel Dodds, in the past few days clearly suggest that, should the backstop issue be resolved satisfactorily, they might well back the Prime Minister.

At the same time, the DUP has aligned itself very closely with the Brexiteer wing of the Tory party, for whom the backstop is merely one of a range of objectionable conditions in the Withdrawal Agreement.

Which faction gets the upper hand in Westminster is bound to determine the DUP's future approach. Right now, Arlene Foster may allegedly be holding out an olive branch to Theresa May, but only because she's the one clinging on in No 10 and this new willingness to set differences aside could quickly fall apart when, as seems most likely, the PM returns to the Commons with nothing to show for her efforts.

It's hard to be optimistic in the long-term, when the DUP has been so consistent in its enthusiasm for Brexit despite all the warnings that it brings a united Ireland one step closer.

There is a roaring deluge of water yet to flow under that particular bridge and whether the bridge is still standing afterwards is anybody's guess.

Belfast Telegraph