Leading article

Arlene Foster's charm offensive

When Arlene Foster lets it be known that, in quick succession, she is attending a Muslim celebration, accepting an invitation to an LGBT event and considering a trip to the Ulster GAA final, it is fairly clear that something is stirring beneath the DUP's normally austere surface.

Mrs Foster is plainly correct to take as inclusive an approach as possible, and to reach out to all sections of our divided society, but it will be noted that her concentrated charm offensive has been launched more than two and a half years after she became the leader of her party.

Other senior politicians have made it their business to engage in symbolic gestures at a much earlier stage after taking up their posts, with David Trimble, Seamus Mallon, Mark Durkan, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness all breaking new ground in different ways.

Peter Robinson managed to turn up at a GAA match more than six years ago, albeit a low-key McKenna Cup tie, and his much-discussed speech at Queen's University earlier this month may well have had an impact on Mrs Foster's sudden burst of activity.

It is beyond doubt that the DUP must broaden its appeal if it seriously aspires to restore a Stormont executive in the short term, never mind come up with a wider strategy for dealing with implications of the border referendum which is looming on the horizon.

The Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry has already been hugely damaging to the DUP, and even before the evidence is completed has left many observers wondering just how extensive an overhaul will be required before the party is in any position to be accepted back into devolved government.

Mrs Foster's deal with Theresa May's administration is in deep trouble as the prime minister stumbles from one crisis to another and mainstream Conservative figures openly question whether it is appropriate to retain links with the DUP.

Taking all these factors into account, Mrs Foster's previous reluctance to engage with minority groups across the community, and demonstrate full respect for the nationalist tradition, had become unsustainable.

A speech outlining her forthcoming intentions contained some perfectly valid points but, in keeping with the party's unusual PR strategy, was only released to a single media outlet.

The Irish News, for example, as the Belfast-based paper with by far the biggest paid-for circulation, has been attempting to arrange an interview with Mrs Foster for more than 18 months, only to find her consistently unavailable.

If the DUP leader sets out to fully explain her priorities, and debate her plans with a range of different voices, it is difficult to see how her position would in any sense be weakened.

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