Eamonn Mallie: A way for Arlene Foster to redeem herself

End to majority unionism: This earthquake moment has happened on DUP chief’s watch

At Stormont Arlene Foster said that she's happy the enquiry into the RHI is finally going ahead.

 

In the early hours of Saturday morning last, we witnessed “The Fall of the Berlin Wall of Stormont”, which ended majority unionism for the first time in a century.

This is a psychologically debilitating moment for unionism, with nationalists now breathing down the throats of the Democratic Unionist Party. The unionist party came home with just one seat more - 28 - than Sinn Féin did - 27 - in the 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly election.

Foster’s watch

This earthquake moment in unionism has happened on Arlene Foster’s watch. I doubt if any politician would like having this on their CV: “I ceded 100 years of my history and heritage to my political rivals.”

This is tough for the DUP leader. Questions will sooner or later be raised about her stewardship

This is the same leader now heading up her party’s negotiations with the other leaders at Stormont. No one should underestimate the pounding Ms Foster has taken in the last four months. She knows she has problems with republicans.

The fact is, however, her problems might be nearer home. There are nine former fellow Assembly members now facing the dole queue. This is also happening on Foster’s watch. This has the capacity to see the fermentation of problems inside the party’s ranks.

This is tough for the DUP leader. Questions will sooner or later be raised about her stewardship.

This is a major constitutional moment for unionism, akin to the dilemma in which former Conservative Party leader David Cameron found himself after his miscalculation in opting for a referendum on Brexit - which he lost.

He resigned immediately. Mr Cameron knew he would become part of his government’s problem in going forward - and so pragmatically fell on his sword.

Unlike Cameron, Foster is refusing to accept she is part of the problem in the new circumstances.

She is going into negotiations with her hand weakened. She has her destiny in her own hands.

If she fails to grasp it she will end up a footnote in history, saddled with the distinction of being the unionist leader who oversaw the end of majority unionism at Stormont after a century.

‘Crocodile Snap’

The DUP leader will also be remembered for “fostering” a new game called “Crocodile Snap”.

Clearly, Ms Foster and the DUP did not agree to what broadly speaking was viewed as a reasonable request from Martin McGuinness for her to step aside for a short period while a preliminary investigation was carried out into the Renewable Heating Incentive scandal.

She was the Minister who was responsible at the time for the introduction of the botched scheme.

Arlene Foster is a lawyer: she is aware, I am sure, of poet Horace’s Latinism: “Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.” (Seize the day - put very little trust in tomorrow).

Ms Foster could now seize the initiative and assure Ms O’Neill she will personally navigate the necessary legislation through the Assembly to introduce that Irish Language Act

Herein lies her opportunity: what if she decided to directly engage Sinn Féin’s Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill?

The DUP leader who through bullheadedness stared down an ailing Martin McGuinness, might have a second chance to redeem herself.

A court ruling last week decided the Northern Ireland Executive has an obligation to introduce an Irish Language Act.

Ms Foster could now seize the initiative and assure Ms O’Neill she will personally navigate the necessary legislation through the Assembly to introduce that Irish Language Act.

The incendiary issue of “legacy” is not uniquely a nationalist concern. The Past did not discriminate. Protestants suffered too as Ian Paisley jnr has observed. This is another area in which Foster could be generous without losing face.

Should the former first minister inform Ms O’Neill she is willing to accede to a request from Lord Chief Justice Declan Morgan for funds to address 55 unresolved inquests, this would melt a lot of lingering hurt in the nationalist community.

Foster would also be rendering a service to her own community.

Unresolved inquests

In fact, the unresolved inquests involve the killings by the IRA of three RUC officers in a landmine explosion at Kinnego in 1981. There are loyalists, too, among the incomplete inquests.

Meanwhile, there are controversial social issues such as same-sex marriage. Conceivably, without the DUP having capacity to use their veto “Petition of Concern”, a majority of the Assembly would now vote to legislate for what is the norm in other jurisdictions.

Would Ms O’Neill not be disarmed with these gestures from the DUP leader?

Paisley jnr pointed out in a TV interview at the weekend, addressing his own community, that all of these social measures, part of the fibre of the rest of the UK, would become law in Northern Ireland at the stroke of a pen should Direct Rule be reintroduced.

The DUP leader could also reassure Ms O’Neill the office of first minister is a joint office and will no longer be defined as “deputy first minister and first minister” but as “joint first minister” in word and deed.

Would Ms O’Neill not be disarmed with these gestures from the DUP leader?

Would this not test the outgoing first minister’s theory that Sinn Féin is a crocodile always coming back for more?

Parity of esteem

Is it conceivable against this backdrop of civility and accession to principles of parity of esteem that Foster’s potential humiliation of having to step aside, either voluntarily or involuntarily, could be avoided?

Some in the Democratic Unionist Party might view the above as a charter for surrender.

It might too be a charter for the survival of their leader, which presumes for a moment she has a future as party leader.

Politics is, after all, a blood sport.