Conor McFall looks at Arlene Foster’s latest charm offensive and asks the question we have all been wondering; is this too little, too late?
Arlene Foster’s charm offensive continued this week, with the DUP leader attending the Ulster GAA Football final between Donegal and her home county of Fermanagh. Predictably, this has sent the perpetually easily pleased into raptures and shows once again the over-reliance on symbolic gestures ahead of material change in Northern Irish politics.
Foster received a warm reception upon her arrival at Clones and was applauded on her way into the ground by spectators. She met with GAA dignitaries and sat alongside Sinn Fein Deputy President Michelle O’Neill in the stands. Much was also made of the fact that she was present for the Irish national anthem before kick-off. The obligatory selfie with O’Neill and Foster is now doing the rounds on social media.
Her attendance at the game is just one in several ‘outreach’ gestures made by Arlene Foster in the last number of weeks. In the run up to the final, she tweeted her support for the Fermanagh team and held up their shirt in a photo op. Foster also spent time with a Muslim community in the North to mark the celebration of Eid. And in the coming weeks, she will attend an event run by Pink News as part of Belfast Pride week. Given the DUP’s history of bigotry and deep social conservativism, especially towards the LGBT community in Northern Ireland, these are to a degree significant steps. However, this should be approached with caution. Already we’ve had South Belfast MLA Christopher Stalford crowing on Radio Ulster about how people have attempted to “stereotype” the DUP and its leader and laughably stating that its anti-marriage equality stance should not “define the relationship our party has with an entire community.”
While anyone with an ounce of sense will see through this pathetic statement, it is revealing how gargantuan the arrogance of the DUP remains even during an ‘outreach’ campaign. Many pointed out the gall of Sinn Fein when, following the change in their abortion policy at their Ard Fheis, they acted as if their previous stances had never existed. But the DUP have gone one step further and attempted to erase their 40 year history without even changing any policies. It would take an inordinate amount of time to chronicle the party’s long history of homophobia but suffice to say the party of Save Ulster From Sodomy, Iris Robinson, Edwin Poots, blood bans and petitions of concern has been no ally to the LGBT community. Stalford talks about ‘behaving civilly’ towards people he disagrees with, but the legacy of his party shows that they have done anything but. And, as with Peter Robinson’s remarks in 2014 about not trusting Muslims, there has been no reckoning with this history. Instead, we are to make do with a handshake and a photo op and being told to move on. Arlene Foster meeting members of the Muslim and LGBT communities is only a small start in what would take a long process of reform to move official unionism away from its history of damaging reactionaryism and build trust with marginalised groups. It is questionable whether this can even be done.
The politics of symbolism
Of course, Foster’s attendance at the Ulster Final was received with rapturous applause by an easily pleased political centre, feeding off whatever scraps of positivity it can grasp. The Belfast Telegraph devoted its front page to declare that this was an ‘historic moment.’ If this shows us anything, it illuminates how low standards truly are in Northern Ireland. A political leader attending a significant sporting occasion or attending an LGBT event during Pride season is something expected as a norm in the rest of these islands. The reception to this is a further sign of how the Northern Ireland public have been continually fed on a ‘bread and circus’ politics of symbolic gestures to illustrate progress since the beginning of the peace process. This has been abetted by a media that largely fulfils a role as organs of ‘peace journalism’. The local newspapers and radio talk shows are happy to operate a sectarianised pantomime as an outlet for ‘conflict by other means’ politics, but ultimately there is an interest in keeping the show on the road. Of course, some of these symbolic moments are undeniably of historical significance – Martin McGuinness shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth, as well as her visit to the Republic stand out in particular.
But we’ve already had Peter Robinson talking about reaching out to Catholics, Edwin Poots attending a GAA game and Paul Givan trying his hand at Gaelic football. We already had Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster pictured shaking hands at Martin McGuinness’ funeral last year. And we’re still in a position where we have no government, no marriage equality, no abortion rights among a myriad of other social crises. Bending over backwards to praise the DUP (or Sinn Fein for that matter) for doing the bare minimum is not a sound method of encouraging them to change, it simply allows them to get away with continuing with the same old act while occasionally placating the bourgeoise centre ground with a few well-timed handshakes for the cameras. After ten years of stalemate in government and increasing neoliberalisation of the NI economy, we should have more to show for it than some nice photos. And with long political vacuum continuing on, I believe that the politics of symbolism is reaching the point of diminishing returns.
The question that has frequently gone unasked amid Foster’s seeming damascene conversion is the one that strikes me as the most obvious – why now? It could be just that. After 18 months outside of Stormont, she has seen the light. But it is also important to consider the wider political lay of the land. It must be acknowledged that the DUP’s position is actually rather precarious. With Brexit negotiations reaching a crunch point both within the government and with EU negotiators, Theresa May’s position as Prime Minster remains tenuous. This means that the DUP’s relationship with the Conservative Party may also be in jeopardy in the near future. One of the effects of this relationship has been to shine a light on Northern Ireland that has long been missing from the British mainstream press. This has lead to attempts from Labour MPs Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn to take advantage of the Stormont power vacuum and introduce bills for abortion liberalisation and same-sex marriage respectively. The absence of a devolved government disempowers the DUP from the ability to block such reform as it has done in the past.
To give Foster the benefit of the doubt, her outreach efforts may be an attempt to reflect new realities rather than position her party to oppose them. The Repeal victory in Ireland’s abortion referendum last month increases the pressure for change on this side of the border, further emphasising how untenable NI abortion policy is. A recent Life and Times survey suggested that DUP voters are actually more likely to support abortion reform than Sinn Fein voters. So Foster and other major figures are perhaps finally realising that their political intransigence is becoming more out of touch with the feelings of their base. This is dangerous for the party at a time when Brexit uncertainty has been met with crescendoing calls for a border poll from nationalists and republicans. The fact that NI had a pro-remain majority during the EU referendum has led some in the liberal centre to consider the prospects of a United Ireland with more seriousness than ever before. At a speech at Policy Exchange last month, Arlene Foster stated that “a Northern Ireland which embraces differing cultures and where minorities feel valued is one that few will choose to abandon.” However, the history of her party and her ideology is one that runs in direct opposition to those values. Therefore the question must be asked, is her newfound enthusiasm for outreach a case of too little, too late?