Language of blood will only raise the risks of extremism
Flirting with provocative rhetoric was a step too far for DUP leader Arlene Foster
It may be possible, with sufficient bending over backwards, to find a charitable interpretation for why DUP leader Arlene Foster, when describing her party's position on Brexit last week, told a BBC reporter that "the red line is blood red"; but right now it's hard to think of one.
There's an unfortunate history of politicians using blood rhetoric to emphasise a point, not least Enoch Powell's "rivers of blood" speech warning against the dangers of immigration, and 1916 leader Padraig Pearse's insane conviction that "blood is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and the nation that regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood".
That last one was at least a hundred years ago. Arlene Foster decided to dabble this week in the same rhetoric in the full knowledge of where such absurdities can lead. Suffice to say that it's a turn of phrase more beloved of extremists than democrats. She'll be talking about the sanctity of the "soil" next.
Her language recalls those loyalists in the years before World War I who were alleged to have signed the Ulster Covenant in blood. Actually, that's a myth, albeit a persistent one. A useful myth too when it comes to girding the loins and stiffening the sinews of the tribe. Mrs Foster should know better than anyone what this spirited rhetoric of blood implies in Northern Ireland, and where it can lead, and for her to play that loaded card now can't be accidental, and it can't be excused.
Spin it as her defenders might, it is hard to take it as anything other than a cynical allusion to the threat of violence if anti-Brexit unionists don't get their own way.
Had Mary Lou McDonald made a similar assertion that Sinn Fein's bottom lines were "blood red", she'd have rightly been condemned. Indeed, her northern vice-president Michelle O'Neill was heavily criticised this week for unveiling a 30-page submission to the British government's consultation on how to address the legacy of the Troubles which begins from the premise that the British State was the "main conflict protagonist" in the North, when it was the Provisional IRA which alone killed half of the more than 3,700 victims. Without a trace of irony, Sinn Fein declared the British state has "always sought to conceal, deny and cover up its central role in the Irish conflict", as if that hadn't been the republican movement's own modus operandi from the start. When it comes to rewriting history, SF has the market almost sewn up.
That doesn't mean, though, that their opponents should get a free pass on some "let's be nice to the DUP and hope they reciprocate" pretext. It can hardly be argued that she didn't know what she was saying.
Peter Weir, a former minister at Stormont for the Ulster Unionists, has known Foster a long time. A few years ago, he noted that her experience of detailed negotiations over the future of Northern Ireland had given her "an awareness of the significance of language - not just what it says, but what it can lead to".
Those who oppose Brexit have recklessly raised the prospect of a return to violence too. Fine Gael's Neale Richmond, chairman of the Brexit committee in the Dail, recently said there would be a "return to violence" in the North "within a week" if a hard border is erected. An anonymous cabinet minister in the UK also predicted this week that dissidents could easily double in numbers in the event of a hard Brexit.
This is all thoroughly disgraceful scaremongering too, though a salivating media seems happy to lap it up.
The difference is that responsible mainstream nationalists have so far played down such provocative auguries, concentrating instead on the economic challenges of Brexit, rather than giving the oxygen of publicity to dissident headcases.
SF itself deserves some credit for not rising to the bait this week. O'Neill simply said that Arlene Foster's remarks were "bizarre" and that the DUP leader had "lost the run of herself". Far stronger words would have been more than justified.
It can be facile to draw direct links between political rhetoric and violence on the streets, but blood is not a metaphor that should be used lightly, least of all by someone who has spoken so starkly of her own experience of being at home in the kitchen as a child when her father, an RUC reservist, was shot on his farm and "came in on all fours crawling, with blood coming from his head". (Mercifully, he survived.)
The Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs have contributed to this increasingly shrill atmosphere by flirting with crowd pleasing pan-nationalist noises, and by shielding Sinn Fein from the consequences of its own decision to collapse the Stormont executive on a flimsy pretext with, it now seems obvious, no apparent plan of how to revive it.
The British government has also created the space for this confusion by faffing about over the backstop.
As Brexit talks head into the business end, and with EU President Donald Tusk seemingly trying to tempt Brexiteers with the prospect of what's known as a "Canada plus" free trade deal which would allow Britain to head off into the sunset but leave Northern Ireland inside Europe's regulatory remit, separate from the rest of the UK, it could be that Mrs Foster felt the need to lay down the law. There's nothing unreasonable about her opposition to a new border in the Irish Sea. She could have done so, however, without deploying the language of threat.
Back in March, former UK Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair warned that the Belfast Agreement could be jeopardised by the reimposition of a hard border. Arlene Foster quickly responded: "I object in the strongest possible terms to people who have limited experience of the Troubles in Northern Ireland throwing threats of violence around as some kind of bargaining chip in this negotiating process. To do so is an insult to the people of Northern Ireland who worked so hard to bring peace to our country."
She was right then, and wrong now. The long term survival of Northern Ireland within the UK depends on winning Catholic support. That's already dead in the water thanks to Brexit, the know-it-alls will say, with a dash of wishful thinking; but everything still depends on what actually happens after Brexit. If it's not as bad as the doomsayers predict, then the unionist argument is not lost.
Sadly, indulging in this ludicrously macho rhetoric about "blood red" lines in the sand just to stiffen the sinews of a few old boys risks everything that moderate unionists have worked to preserve.
Most ordinary unionists recognise that. Three-quarters say they wouldn't support tampering with the Belfast Agreement in order to help the Brexit cause. Arlene Foster should listen to them.