Denis Bradley: Arlene Foster’s sneer is what did the damage

How long she survives is in the hands of the gods and the DUP’s grey-suited men

It was the sneer that did it. The condescending tone of Arlene Foster’s voice invoked even more rage than the imperious content of her speech. “That’s not how I do business” or “If you feed the crocodile, it will keep coming back for more” could be caustic in any mouth but, couched in Arlene’s sneer, it aroused thousands of nationalists and republicans out of their passivity to show her and her DUP party that the days of being spoken down to were past.

The power of that sneer enticed tens of thousands to the ballot box, many who had initially decided not to vote and many who hadn’t voted in years. It also aroused the ant-like efficiency of the Sinn Féin electoral machine. At the last election only 10 months previously, that machine had settled into an average electoral pace. This time it was back to full momentum, knocking on every door, personalising every correspondence, transporting the electorate to the polling stations.

The outcome of this election is momentous. Sinn Féin was the winner and the SDLP held its own. The DUP got its vote out, but not enough to keep significantly ahead of Sinn Féin, and the UUP lost its leader. The result is momentous, not just because of the distribution of the seats, but because in the minds of its own people, unionism has lost its majority. The dreaded day of the reversal of majority and minority status has come or is near at hand.

Return to civility

It is not so many years since the DUP was asserting that it would never go into power with Sinn Féin/IRA. But even before the votes were counted last Friday, Arlene was calling for a return to civility and for her party and Sinn Féin to re-establish the institutions. By late Friday night and early Saturday, the rustle of the men in grey suits who come to the door to reveal that one’s political life is at an end could be heard in DUP corridors.


A former member of her party was predicting that Arlene would be gone by the beginning of this week. That was too extreme, but the demand for her to stand aside for a period, which was anathema a few weeks ago, is now being hinted at from within the DUP to get the institutions up and running. How long she survives is in the hands of the gods and the grey-suited men.

The result is a massive boost to Sinn Féin. It comes as Brexit negotiations begins, and it gives the party options and alternatives that it could only have dreamt of. For the coming years, politics in the North will only be a side show. All the substantial politics close to the heart of Sinn Féin are now subsumed into the constitutional issues that will form part of the Brexit discussions.

Theresa May and her government might wish away the constitutional issues of Ireland and Scotland, but the Irish and Scottish governments can't allow that to happen. Sinn Féin will no longer be "ourselves alone", teasing out the unacceptability of a Border on this island. It will go into talks with the DUP insisting on a change of tone and attitude from its former partner and a speeding up of delivery of matters it claims have already been settled in former agreements. But the republicans can now withdraw from the talks at any time with an attitude that no assembly or no executive is no skin off their nose.

Middle ground holds

The SDLP did well to increase its vote and become the third largest party. Still, the warning is there once again: When passions are aroused and the issue of British/Irish identity comes into the frame, the middle ground has to work even harder to hold its own.

In trying to address this dilemma years ago, the SDLP and Fianna Fáil explored the viability of a merger or partnership that would provide both of them with an all-Ireland presence – just like Sinn Féin. Those talks ran into the sand, but Fianna Fáil is intent on establishing a presence in the North by 2019.

A famous theologian used to say that the Catholic Church would always get there, but always a bit breathless and a bit late. At the speed of change in British/Irish politics, 2019 is out of breath and well past its sell-by date. This result may encourage both sides to reopen discussions.

Sometime in the near future, it will dawn on the political world: the archipelago that is the British and Irish islands requires a reassessment and a resettlement of its various political identities. It will be a much-needed effort to imagine and agree constitutional definitions and political institutions that can provide for the diversity of all the identities. It will demand the participation of the two governments, the devolved institutions and the European Union, either as participant or facilitator.

Denis Bradley is a journalist and former vice-chairman of the police board for the Police Service of Northern Ireland.