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John Manley: Has the penny finally dropped for the DUP?

Arlene Foster's speech in Killarney set a more conciliatory tone. Picture by Valerie O'Sullivan/PA Wire

WE don't hear much from Arlene Foster these days.

The number of platforms available to the DUP leader has reduced in the year since she was first minister, while her own unofficial boycott of certain news outlets also limits appearances.

Reflecting how DUP power currently resides at Westminster, her deputy Nigel Dodds and other MPs are increasingly taking on media responsibilities.

Arguably therefore, curiosity value alone made Mrs Foster's weekend speech in Killarney newsworthy.

Before she had even stepped up to the lectern the DUP was spinning her words as conciliatory, in contrast with the megaphone cross-border diplomacy that prevailed at the end of last year.

Certainly the tone of her address, which came almost 52 years to the day since Sean Lemass and Terence O'Neill engaged in their own act of north-south rapprochement, was less aggressive.

The DUP leader spoke of commonality and shared interests, of how the political and economic fate of the two parts of the island are inextricably linked, and that it makes sense to pool resources, such as health provision, on such a small island.

She told the Sunday Independent of how her own son had been born with a heart condition and received treatment at Crumlin Children's Hospital in Dublin.

For decades, such observations have formed the basis of arguments for cross-border harmonisation, where pragmatism overrides more contentious notions of identity and sovereignty, but a unionist leader acknowledging such realities is perhaps significant, if long overdue.

The context of Mrs Foster's speech was of course Brexit, a DUP-backed misadventure that will have far-reaching implications for Ireland, yet one that has comparatively little support north or south.

She rejected claims that her party has been "blasé" about the impact on the entire island though in the time since the June 2016 referendum, there's been very little indication from the DUP of how Brexit will work in reality and how an increasingly isolated Northern Ireland will prosper.

The leader's speech may be a one-off and in coming weeks we'll see a return to the 'leave and damn the consequences' approach to Brexit and cross-border relations, but it's also possible that a penny has finally dropped for Mrs Foster and her party.

It's become increasingly apparent that Brexit has the potential to be a catalyst for Irish unity, as a previously contented 'small u' unionist bloc turns its back on British jingoism and the attendant economic self-harm.

Couple this with the regional business lobby's fears over severing ties with Brussels, and the DUP may be slowly waking up to the fact that its blinkeredness could prove counter-productive.

It was a simplistic interpretation of ideology which created the Brexit mess but it will take a lot more than rhetoric to turn into a success.

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