Patrick Murphy: Nationalist anger at Arlene Foster may become a problem for Sinn Fein - The Irish News
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Patrick Murphy: Nationalist anger at Arlene Foster may become a problem for Sinn Fein

Nationalist opinion on Arlene Foster is divided. Picture by Mal McCann

NATIONALISM appears to have two different views on Arlene Foster.

One is that she should be boiled in oil. The other argues that she should be hanged, drawn and quartered, but not necessarily in that order.

Mrs Foster's unpopularity appears to stem from her ability to give Sinn Féin the run-around in government. Her new found power stems partly from her personal ability and partly from three unexpected developments: the emergence of an opposition at Stormont, Sinn Féin's over-reaction to that opposition and nationalism's attitude to Brexit.

The establishment of a Stormont opposition has created significant problems for Sinn Féin. Previously, it could sometimes present itself as a rebel party. For example, it opposed much of what Michael McGimpsey did as health minister and in 2011 it supported a public sector strike against government austerity (while sitting in government).

Now that it has no hiding place in a two-party coalition, it has opted instead to attack any opposition to government policy. It pledges loyalty to an administration which has a less than convincing record in policy and ethics.

So the success of Stormont's opposition, particularly for the SDLP, has not been in damaging the government, but in forcing SF to new and unnecessary levels of electoral recklessness. Being joined at the hip to the DUP is damaging its rebel image among its own power base - and this is not the DUP of Paisley or Robinson.

Arlene Foster is no chuckle sister. She is the most secure unionist leader since Lord Brookeborough and she has the upper hand in the executive because Stormont's opposition carries little threat to the DUP. Indeed, Arlene's ability to get SF to follow the DUP's lead has strengthened unionism, hence her unpopularity with nationalists.

Sinn Féin now finds itself, for example, openly defending the allocation of £1.7 million from the Strategic Investment Fund (SIF) to Charter NI, an organisation which was represented on the steering group which allocated the £1.7 million. Its chief executive, Dee Stitt, is allegedly a member of the illegal UDA, which is reportedly engaged in violence, extortion and drug dealing. That is not a good place for SF to be.

When Martin McGuinness called for Mr Stitt to consider his position, Arlene Foster refused to back the deputy first minister. It was a put-down of immense political significance. Some might claim that Tiocfaidh ár lá (our day will come) has now been replaced with Tháinig Ár-lene (Arlene came).

Even more embarrassing is the fact that the Stormont speaker, Robin Newton, did not reveal he was linked to Charter NI, while preventing the SDLP from raising questions about it. Sinn Féin offered no criticism of Mr Newton, although his behaviour might be considered a resignation matter in other assemblies.

Meanwhile, as John Manley revealed in this newspaper, a DUP appointee to an SIF steering group is the new "independent" joint chair of the Flags, Parades and Identity Commission. Lord Brookeborough has not gone away, you know.

It does not help Sinn Féin that the allocation of scarce funds in questionable circumstances coincides with the Education Authority's plans to close schools and outdoor pursuit centres. It also comes at a time when the executive, of which SF is a loyal member, has authorised academic selection.

In an attempt to counter potential electoral damage, Sinn Féin opted for a joint Foster-McGuinness statement. What was previously portrayed as a form of government is now presented as a political romance.

Stormont's press office has become a branch of Mills and Boon, publishers of romantic novels. (You know the sort of thing: "As the moon rose above Stormont, Arlene and Martin pledged undying political loyalty to each other, knowing that the feud between their political families had now ended" - a sort of Romeo and Juliet for an increasingly sceptical audience.)

But true political love never runs smoothly and Sinn Féin's biggest test has yet to come. It proposes that the north should remain within the EU, with special status. But neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil are too keen to help it in the face of a southern election, so the north will remain within the UK, with a soft-ish border.

Blind loyalty to the DUP and the return of any form of visible border is not good news for Sinn Féin. Its only strength at the moment is that nationalists are turning their anger towards Arlene.

But if SF does not put some clear water between itself and the DUP soon, some of those who want to boil her in oil might reasonably ask if she should be placed in the pot on her own.

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