Newton Emerson: Arlene Foster’s troubled past resonates across unionism
Purity of First Minister’s victimhood gives her confidence and authority to work with Sinn Féin
Arlene Foster: The life story she presents to the electorate is of a grammar school girl and RUC man’s daughter struggling to lead a normal life through the Troubles. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Arlene Foster is 45, nine months younger than me and cut from the same small-town, middle-class cloth. The life story she presents to the electorate is of a grammar school girl and RUC man’s daughter struggling to lead a normal life through the Troubles.
This is the Protestant parable of our generation, as evocative as a classic episode of Blue Peter and every bit as quaintly respectable. It is a world view in which the Troubles were a sectarian crime-wave, unleashed upon society by a small number of mainly republican terrorists. Thanks to the security forces, society endured, although unionism must now deal with republican politics and its attempts to “rewrite the past”.
Foster has introduced herself as Northern Ireland’s First Minister by resetting that past, to a point which resonates with the entire unionist constituency. Her two pivotal experiences of the Troubles – forced off the family farm, her father shot and wounded; surviving a bomb attack on her school bus – are archetypes of IRA evil. Yet the purity of her victimhood gives Foster the confidence and authority to work with Sinn Féin today. “I have no doubt I was bitter as a teenager,” she told BBC Northern Ireland last week, immediately adding: “I hope I have changed. I hope I have matured.”
As a positioning stance, this could hardly be bettered. The new DUP leader inherits a party of factions, ranging from the extremely religious to the extremely pragmatic, which her predecessor and mentor Peter Robinson controlled through the unrepeatable trick of being off-hand to everyone. She also inherits the leadership of unionism, a bag of cats at the best of times and especially so three months before a Stormont election, with signs of a revival by a more hardline UUP – the party she defected from in 2004.
Foster’s biography runs down the middle of these divides like a strip of double-sided sticky tape. Every unionist can adhere to it and I am no exception. My father was a shopkeeper and hence an IRA “economic target”. He spent an hour a night for 40 years looking for the incendiary device he never found (in the end, our shop was burned down by a faulty fridge).
Economic targetThroughout the Troubles, people clung to the idea that risk was minimal if you avoided certain places, jobs and activities. But families like Foster’s and mine knew the IRA needed only the thinnest of pretexts to attack a Protestant farm or business. There is no doubt this was the real “economic target” – republicans devoted the final year before their 1994 ceasefire to flattening Protestant market towns. Sly doubts are now cast on the purity of our victimhood and, in truth, we had questions of our own. Commercial life in my home town was plagued, between IRA bombs by loyalist intimidation and extortion or robbery and assault if the intimidation failed. The RUC seemed strangely unable to stop the obvious culprits. Shortly before he died, I asked my father if he had any suspicions about one case affecting his business. He said he did not. But we are not a naive people: during the Troubles, ordinary unionists wondered loudly and often why the reputed few hundred terrorists could not simply be arrested, given the enormous security apparatus arranged against them. We knew something was wrong with our view of “right”.
Foster has had no hesitation in building this into her reset of history. Last month, an allegation was made that police had prior knowledge through an informant of the IRA’s 1993 Shankill bomb. Despite outright PSNI denials of a story toxic to the unionist narrative, Foster promptly met relatives of the victims, supported their call for a police ombudsman’s inquiry and promised to raise the matter with the secretary of state. She then slotted it all back into the unionist comfort zone with the following statement: “I have been, and continue to be, a long-time supporter of the RUC and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, but that doesn’t take away from the fact there were a few bad apples around at that particular point in time, therefore we have to get to the truth of this.”
Unionist thinkingThe “few bad apples” cliche is so at odds with the thrust of modern truth recovery that it is almost a shock to be reminded of how this was the safety limit on unionist thinking for decades. Now Foster has brought it back, most unionists will realise it never went away. We all knew RUC officers, went to school with their children and had friends who joined – and they were good apples, in a solid barrel. Their impartiality was confirmed in my teenage years as they were shot at by the IRA and burned out of their houses by supporters of the DUP, enraged at the policing of riots against the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Foster has so far left that detail out of her 1980s nostalgia.
Last week, secretary of state Theresa Villiers delivered a landmark speech that echoed the DUP leader’s line and criticised republicanism’s “pernicious counter-narrative” of the Troubles. “At last” trilled the front page of the News Letter – but wider unionist opinion seemed unmoved. Sinn Féin and the British government are engaged in a negotiation over dealing with the past and the speech was perhaps too obviously a part of that, heralding another fudge. Villiers has not lived the life that can conjure such sentiments from the heart.
Responding to Foster’s BBC interview, Martin McGuinness said “there will always be more than one narrative to any conflict”. Unionists know that, of course. The appeal of our Blue Peter girl is showing us one we made earlier.