Brian Feeney: Arlene Foster lacks Ian Paisley's independent streak
YOU might have noticed at the British-Irish Council meeting in Cardiff last Friday how Arlene Foster stuck to our proconsul for the time being like a limpet.
In the ‘family photo’ at the end she and the proconsul were out on one wing while in the centre Martin McGuinness, Enda Kenny and Nicola Sturgeon couldn’t squeeze closer.
Partly that was because our proconsul ranks so low in protocol below the other first ministers from Scotland and Wales and the islands.
However, Arlene chose not to join with the other first ministers in the photo. It was the same at the press conference where quite correctly Martin McGuinness criticised Theresa May for slighting the council’s first meeting since she became prime minister: the line-up was Kenny, McGuinness, Sturgeon.
Interesting to speculate what the line-up would have been had May turned up. It’s a fair bet Arlene would have shoe-horned herself into the centre alongside the prime minister.
The choreography at the meeting is a perfect illustration of the disservice Arlene Foster is doing people here.
While all the other first ministers including McGuinness had plenty to say about their aims and objectives, even demands for future relations with the EU, Arlene was silent. Silent because she has nothing to say.
In her abject obedience to the British government of course she’s being a classic unthinking unionist. Curiously she doesn’t follow the example of her party’s inventor Paisley.
He was the only unionist leader who openly attacked British governments and prime ministers and regularly got himself slung out of the House of Commons for calling secretaries of state unparliamentary names.
Foster’s currently mute posture on Brexit may be welcome to many nationalists but in failing to articulate what she wants for the north she is failing people here just as she did when she advocated Brexit.
Admittedly she did so in the most lukewarm fashion leading many to believe she didn’t think Leave would win and didn’t care if they lost. No matter. It happened and now she’s trapped in her slavish unionism right or wrong.
As others have pointed out, Theresa May’s present position is that she refuses to tell anyone that she doesn’t know what she intends to do.
Unfortunately until she does Arlene Foster doesn’t know what to ask for until she’s been told. While Martin McGuinness and Micheál Martin can demand special status for the north all Arlene can do is repeat Theresa May’s silly mantra that ‘Brexit is Brexit’ and parrot the proconsul that there will be ‘no hard border’ even though neither of them knows what that might mean in practice.
Arlene’s speeches provide plenty of evidence of her limitations, that she lacks insight, imagination and political vision but you’d be entitled to expect she had some grasp of bread and butter matters when it comes to the peculiar and unique position of the north.
If she does, she’s keeping it secret in case articulating it would expose some flaw in unionism, some disagreement with the imperial government that ‘rogue Sinn Féin ministers’ could exploit to embarrass her. (There being no ‘renegade SDLP ministers’ now her troubles are halved).
Paisley might have been a political thug and dangerous rabble-rouser inciting hatred on the streets but for a unionist he had a streak of independence in him.
He stood up to successive British ministers. No danger of that from Arlene. When it comes to articulating what’s best for this place it turns out, in the words of Robbie Burns she’s a ‘wee cowerin’ timorous beastie’. In short a mouse.
The word ‘sleekit’ has been omitted here from Burns’s original line because the evidence is that Arlene hasn’t the political nous to be sleekit.
She’s up front in her dismissal of everything Irish and too obstinate to slide sideways when she’s made a political error as with her fetching photo with Dee Stitt.
The real danger of this supine abasement to London is that when the British government finally comes up with something which is fundamentally detrimental to the well-being of people here Arlene Foster on her current record will say, ‘Yes ma’am, thank you ma’am’, tug her forelock and curtsey with gratitude instead to making common cause with Sinn Féin. Heaven forfend.