Thursday 13 December 2018

Arlene Foster should banish Boris and back Theresa May

Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

When Arlene Foster said she would be happy to work with Boris Johnson, I recalled a saying attributed to the subtle French statesman and survivor, Talleyrand.

Told that Napoleon's execution of the Duke of Enghien was a crime, he replied: "It is worse than a crime, it is a mistake."

Backing Boris Johnson was a more serious political mistake by Foster than her loose use of language about the Belfast Agreement which, as Newton Emerson pointed out in The Irish Times, was just an off-the-cuff response to a reporter.

That may explain, but does not excuse, her "blood red line" remark which re-filled Sinn Fein's almost empty bowl of cream.

But it pales beside her betrayal of a serious woman politician like Theresa May to embrace a political playboy like Boris Johnson.

Before saying more, let me distance myself from the majority in the Republic who are blind to their own bigotry about unionists.

My position is similar to that of peace activist Andy Pollak in a recent blog:

"My experience is that even moderate Irish nationalists in the Republic find it difficult to be objective when the word 'unionist' is used. Their default position is that unionist equals bad."

The tragedy is that until last year the Republic was beginning to reject its own bigotry, especially after Bertie Ahern's meeting with Ian Paisley at the Boyne.

Back in 2015, I said the same in an essay on southern stereotypes of unionism for a book titled The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants, to which I think I was the sole southerner contributor.

Reviewing my essay in the Belfast Telegraph, the writer Malachi O'Doherty, from a nationalist background, wrote:

"The chapter by Sunday Independent columnist Eoghan Harris attacks that blindness in his fellow country people, but reports progress over the years."

But three years on, most of that progress has been lost in the Republic, and Northern Ireland is more polarised than ever.

Brexit is to blame. Or to be more precise, the political exploitation of Brexit, by the DUP, by Sinn Fein and by Fine Gael waving the green flag.

But this week my focus is on the DUP's suicidal strategy which is a perfect example of what Paul Bew called "stupid unionism".

Note that I am not a nationalist but a pluralist who believes a stable Northern Ireland within the UK suits both unionists, nationalists and the Irish Republic more than any alternative settlement.

That being so, the DUP seems to have a death wish in pursuing a defensive strategy that will end in a victory for Sinn Fein.

Malachi O'Doherty summed up the situation succinctly in his relaunch of Contested Identities in Belfast last week as follows:

"The biggest change on the political scene in Northern Ireland in my eventful lifetime is that the union has become dependent on support from the Catholic community."

Far from trying to frighten unionists, Malachi O'Doherty was sketching out a strategy for their long-term survival. As he says, it boils down to making the union a more palatable choice for nationalists.

Politically this is simply common sense. If the DUP wants to "preserve, protect and defend" the union for the foreseeable future, then it has to secure a solid nationalist bloc of support for that union.

Accordingly, the DUP's primary task is to make the ambience of "Union Hall" more attractive to Catholic nationalists so they eventually become Catholic unionists.

Surely the DUP could put up with an Irish-speaking gay couple in one of the rooms in return for securing the deeds of Union Hall in virtual perpetuity and cutting the ground from under Sinn Fein?

Arlene Foster should be trying to achieve what the Italian Marxist Gramsci called "hegemony" - to present herself and the DUP to Northern Ireland, the UK, and the Republic as representative of a broad centrist social consensus.

So it is madness to court Boris Johnson, who is not a moderate, but a shameless populist who is ironically more in the mould of a Marine le Pen than a traditional conservative - and who could never win a general election.

For Foster to even fantasise about putting unionist eggs into Boris Johnson's hard Brexit basket is political lunacy.

Foster may foolishly think that Boris Johnson represents the zeitgeist. But, as Franz Josef Strauss once said, if you wed the zeitgeist you are a widower the day after.

Because if the UK crashes out of the EU, because of DUP blocking tactics, that party will get the blame and the economic blowback will hurt Northern Ireland badly.

A Labour win would also damage unionism. Corbyn, Sinn Fein and Irish pan-nationalism would start to squeeze for a United Ireland.

Foster's support for Johnson also alienates the Irish Republic. Here she is entitled to some edginess as she has been repeatedly slighted by both the Taoiseach and Tanaiste.

But realpolitik requires her to look through our eyes to see why even an alleged West Brit like me can't stand Boris Johnson.

Like most of my fellow countrymen, I loathe Johnson's louche persona, not because he is a Brit or a Brexiteer, but because he is a chancer. How could a sensible Ulster Protestant like Foster be fooled by such a flash Harry?

Foster falling for a toff as flaky as Boris Johnson astounds us. Just as Jeffrey Donaldson's diplomatic attempt to explain it away on RTE radio last Tuesday elicits our admiration.

Bottom line: Boris Johnson's bid to become Tory leader, no matter what the cost, is putting public opinion in the Republic at the mercy of Sinn Fein.

A year ago there was no pan-nationalist lobby in the Republic. But a combination of the DUP's myopic defensive strategy in Northern Ireland and Leo Varadkar waving the green flag for electoral purposes has opened up a pan-nationalist Pandora's box.

Despite this, unionists' best friends are pluralists like Malachi O'Doherty in Northern Ireland and Micheal Martin in the Republic. And they are not alone in expressing goodwill.

Foster's husband is a rugby fan. She must know that the Irish Republic produces pluralists like Brian O'Driscoll, who explores the role of rugby during the troubles in a forthcoming documentary entitled Shoulder to Shoulder.

Brian got some stick for playing a Lambeg drum. But he was willing to run the risk to beat out a message of tolerance for the Orange tradition.

In the same spirit, Ronan McGreevy will be screening his fine film, United Ireland, How Nationalists and Unionists Fought Together in Flanders, at the request of the Dublin and Wicklow Loyal Orange Lodge 1313 on October 26.

Arlene Foster must also know that past precedents show the most successful unionist leaders were those like David Trimble, Peter Robinson and Ian Paisley, who embraced change so as to control the agenda.

Foster can take the first step towards being a stateswoman rather than a regional leader by banishing Boris Johnson and backing Theresa May's Brexit proposals for the benefit of Northern Ireland.

Sunday Independent