A new era in the North calls for a woman's voice
Published 12/12/2015 | 02:30
In the week when German Chancellor Angela Merkel was named 'Person of the year' by 'Time' magazine for her role in the Greek debt crisis and her heroic political response to the migrant crisis in Europe, something equally significant happened on our own island. For the first time ever, a woman - Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Arlene Foster - has emerged as the likely successor to Peter Robinson as leader of the DUP and First Minister of Northern Ireland.
Up to now, unionist politics has been virtually a female-free zone. Indeed, such was the dearth of elected women in Northern Ireland over the years of the Troubles that it prompted the creation of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition (NIWC) to ensure women's voices were included in the multi-party talks which led to the Good Friday Agreement. What had passed for politics in Northern Ireland over the three decades of the troubles did not appeal to women. It was dangerous, coarse, sectarian and uncompromising. Small wonder women - apart from a few honourable exceptions like Brid Rogers of the SDLP - gave it a wide berth.
The Women's Coalition unusually drew women from all backgrounds. Many were academics, social workers, community activists, professionals and political scientists who came together to ensure the lives and priorities of women were addressed in the negotiations. They put up with appalling verbal abuse in the early days, but gradually through their valued contributions earned the reluctant respect of the males, even on the unionist side.
The late Mo Mowlam and I were on the British and Irish Government sides respectively. So women were present and influential in the talks.
However, the NIWC brought much more than gender to the table. Coming from different communities, and from outside the traditional and tribal political parties, the council injected a freshness and pragmatism to the talks process. It was open to persuasion and to exploring new options and approaches to resolving conflict. Its members were highly educated and motivated to overcome disputes and obstacles to an agreement. The backroom people were professional and non-ideological, unlike other participants who were tied to fixed positions and allegiances. They had courage and confidence to move into the space where accommodation could be found; a truly important capacity greatly valued by the two governments. They focused on human rights, justice issues and on the plight of victims. Sadly, despite the council's contribution to conflict resolution and the political settlement, once the special loading for small parties was removed, it did not survive the divisive tribal tides of party politics in Northern Ireland post-Agreement.
Although women were always active in Sinn Féin and the SDLP, both mainstream unionist parties did not produce many high-profile women, apart from MPs Sylvia Harmon and Iris Robinson. It was only when Arlene Foster defected from the UUP in 2004 with Jeffrey Donaldson to join the DUP that she came to national prominence. She has held the posts of Minister for the Environment, Minister for Trade and Enterprise and Minister for Finance. She was acting First Minister on two occasions.
But her career has been a slow burn in terms of political progression. As a conservative, unionist politician she has been relatively low profile. She, like many female politicians, has worked steadily and carefully over a long period of time, gaining experience and confidence without controversy.
It is notable that until Nigel Dodds decided not to go for the leadership, it was he and not Foster who was tipped to succeed Robinson. As an MP, Dodds was deemed more likely to be leader, even though Foster was Minister for Finance in the Executive having served as acting First Minister during the latest crisis, when the DUP withdrew, leaving her to "gate-keep" until the crisis passed.
As it turns out, Foster is the sole candidate in the leadership contest and looks likely to be ratified next week as DUP leader. She would then be appointed First Minister in January when Robinson stands down.
Although our political paths have not crossed, Foster is impressively cool under fire in media exchanges. She is unflashy and cautious and combative when required. Few would have predicted that a woman would lead the deeply conservative, male-dominated DUP, but she appears to have been strategic and also fortunate in having reluctant rivals.
Angela Merkel's profile and career progression to the top has been characterised by some commentators as the "politics of baby steps".
Although I dislike the somewhat derogatory phrase, in my view, thoughtful resilience in a politician is an asset.
Her ordinariness is central to her popularity and longevity. Arlene Foster is cut from similar cloth. The best politicians are hewn by navigating the chess board of politics at a steady pace. When one considers competent female politicians such as Frances FitzGerald, Mary Harney and Joan Burton, they share a track record of dogged, hard graft.
One can only wish Foster the very best as she assumes the political leadership of her party and of the Executive of Northern Ireland.
Her life experience is truly representative of her community. She has personal experience of violence; when she was a child, the IRA attempted to murder her father, a part-time RUC officer, and as a teenager her school bus was blown up.
A qualified solicitor, she opposed David Trimble's support of the Good Friday Agreement so, like Robinson, has travelled a distance since then.
Aged 45, she is taking over from Robinson at a challenging time. It is the passing of the torch to a new generation, developing a fledgling and often shaky power-sharing government to a fully devolved functioning administration.
The settling of recent tensions over welfare reform and continuing paramilitary criminality by the 'Fresh Start' agreement gives her an opportunity to make her mark.
It will be interesting to see if she can, as leader, be the one to transcend the tribal pull of traditional unionism/loyalism to embrace a truly shared and progressive future with nationalism.