Thursday 21 February 2019

It's all about Arlene's 'blood red lines' in this battle of unions

DUP leader Arlene Foster. REUTERS/Darren Staples
DUP leader Arlene Foster. REUTERS/Darren Staples
John Downing

John Downing

Arlene Foster has turned into the de facto but unlikely saviour of the cheap slab of beer down here in the "Free State". It is a very strange turn up for the books - but we do live in strange times.

The politics week was dominated by the "Bizarre Brexit Show", more usually called the British Conservative Party conference. While UK Prime Minister Theresa May jerkily danced her way to a dubious kind of fame, Arlene Foster stole more than her own share of limelight while attending that Tory conference in Birmingham.

Ms Foster did three major media forays, controversially downgrading the Good Friday Agreement; issuing a threat to pull the Democratic Unionist Party's prop from under Mrs May's minority government; and finally reinforcing those views by saying: "The red line is blood red, it is very red."

Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill hit the bullseye when she dubbed the final intervention "absolutely bizarre". For history buffs it somehow recalled the 1912 Ulster Covenant opposing Home Rule, with the now debunked myth that some of the more ardent Unionists signed in their own blood. Given the tragic history of the North, with more than 3,500 lost lives over 30 years, this was a most unfortunate choice of language.

At the same time back on this island, the "Real Irish Question" - the demon drink - took centre stage. As the Public Health Alcohol Bill finally passed the Dáil after 1,000 days, surely enough to leave most of us gasping for a jar, attention turned to when the law's various radical measures will take effect.

It quickly turned out that the provision on unit pricing, expected to make it six cans of lager for €10, instead of the current eight cans for €10, has a huge Northern Ireland dimension. The authorities in Dublin reckon the measure is not practicable unless it happens in the North also, and the absence of power-sharing structures there for a record 22 months, blocks that.

So, in a funny way, Ms Foster's failure to make a compromise with the equally recalcitrant Sinn Féin, may keep those cheap slabs a coming - for now at least. A new take on Ulster says No.

Perhaps the real surprise about what Ms Foster had to say about the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was that there was so much surprise. She never, ever, liked it and parted company with the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) over it.

Her DUP colleagues equally disliked it and never tried to make it work. While 71pc of voters in the North endorsed it, a majority of DUP supporters rejected it and signs are that they would if the 1998 referendum was run again today.

But her suggestion that the Good Friday Agreement could be modified to allow some kind of hardline Brexit Border deal was both ill-considered and risky. The UUP leader, Robin Swann, rightly pointed out that one of its central tenets, recognising the right of a majority in the North to remain part of the UK if they wish, was a major gain.

Let's be clear that Ms Foster was expressing her frustration at the Good Friday Agreement. If it became an impediment to the North leaving the EU on exactly the same terms as England, Scotland and Wales, then let's change it.

She blithely ignored its status as an international treaty voted by people on both sides of the Border in the first such all-island vote since 1918. The stance also showed the limitations of her leadership and her inability to work with what structures are there. In this "battle of the unions" where the UK faces off against the EU, it is a binary choice, and it must be UK all the way. Surely, there is a more skilful way of operating.

The outing to the Birmingham conference followed a difficult few weeks for Ms Foster as the inquiry into the so-called 'Cash for Ash' scheme gathered pace. Late last month the 'Belfast Telegraph' reported that her statement to that inquiry used terms like "didn't recall" or "didn't recollect" a total of 41 times. In common with other politicians the memory comes under stress at times such as this. Her controversial utterances in Birmingham did move the spotlight for a time at least.

But the Brexit negotiations are moving on and there are signs that what may emerge may turn around some kind of special treatment for the North post-Brexit. The real surprise here again is this should be a matter of controversy. Back in 1995 a man called Ian Paisley sought special treatment for cattle in the North at the height of the BSE mad cow crisis in the UK. In practice they got very similar treatment to that of the Republic and this trend was reinforced in 2001 during the foot-and-mouth alert.

The irony is that while she and DUP colleagues insist Northern Ireland must remain British, their actions and inactions have a direct impact on all our day-to-day lives all across the island.

Irish Independent

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