Several things struck me about Arlene Foster’s speech. One was a fairly subtle dig at a media (“there is not an old DUP and a new DUP”) which had long ago discounted the possibility of a former UUP MLA ever taking over as head of the DUP. Too tribal they said.
Well, they were wrong.
This was less a departure from the Robinson formula so much as an amplification of some its subtler themes. Not least in her treatment of the past relative to the future:
Can any of us imagine what it must have been like for our founding fathers back in the early 20s? Building a new state from scratch. One that was under threat from the very start.
No one thought Northern Ireland would last. Terrorist campaigns and less than loyal governments sought to deprive us of our birthright. Yet the people of Northern Ireland stood strong and withstood whatever was thrown at them.
Now, we stride confidently towards our second century. Safe in the knowledge that Northern Ireland’s place within the Union is secure.
When I was growing up, many of our family and friends firmly believed that a United Ireland was inevitable. I can recall people talking about emigrating when that fateful day would come.
But it never arrived. Something that seemed so certain for many in a generation battered by terrorism and betrayed by governments in London they looked towards to defend them, has given way to a new found sense of certainty that Northern Ireland is here and it’s here to stay. [Emphasis added]
The lengthening of the frame is both clever and important because it shifts perspective away from the Troubles and onto the constitutional frame in which ordinary life is lived in Northern Ireland whatever the residual aspirations of its citizens.
Critically it connects to a point in the near future. Not 2016, but 2021 and the 100th birthday of Northern Ireland (or Partition, whichever you are having yourself?) and a sort of closing ceremony of the decade of centenaries.
Why does that matter. Well as game theory tells us if you want to enlarge the shadow of the future (and reduce the darker shadows of the past) you do so by creating an expectation that the future will be better than the present.
She uses the words of two great literary sons of Ulster – the first inevitably from the “Planter” – to drive home this core strategic message:
These are better days. But we can have better still. A few weeks ago, Peter helped to unveil a portrait in Parliament Buildings of one of Northern Ireland’s literary giants – CS Lewis.
The portrait includes some of the great man’s own words. A quote that reads “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind”.
Aspiring to far, far better things is not something we have been familiar with in this part of the world. Hoping for better than we have has been hampered by a past that deprived us of our dreams. But we have moved on and we can go further.
And then the “Gael” (in almost every honest and true sense of that term):
Northern Ireland should no longer be somewhere where second best will suffice.
We aren’t held back by the Troubles. Or the inability to shape our own destiny. We don’t need to look to anyone else for help. Or point the finger of blame in another direction. Our future is in our own hands.
Alongside that portrait of CS Lewis is another of someone from a very different background – the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney. The quotation on his painting reads, “Believe that a further shore is reachable from here”.
A further, better shore may not always be the clearest to see or seem the easiest to reach. But it is there. And it is not beyond us.
There’s nothing new here of course. A year after Peter Robinson delivered his “if we want a better society it can’t be ‘them and us’” speech, the flag came down from the City Hall and all hell broke loose.
Words of course are cheap, unless they presage action. And action of course in Stormont is impossible unless there is a joint effort to make Northern Ireland work. And yet, perhaps, with a woman in charge at last the overall tone will change:
— Emma Pengelly MLA (@little_pengelly) December 15, 2015
[Would it be impolitic at this truly wonderful moment to mention the new @DUPLeader‘s famous unwillingness to suffer fools gladly? – Ed]. Er, maybe.
In truth, although the DUP was late to the plus sum game, there has been a longer and general trend towards moderation amongst all parties.
Margery McMahon noted in 2002, ‘Northern Ireland’s politicians are now acutely aware that just as they were voted in, so they can just as quickly be voted out. This has resulted in a moderating, not of their political viewpoints, but of how they present them.’
And as Ms Foster herself pointedly notes:
People who get up early in the morning, get their kids to school, go and do a hard day’s work and come home tired, don’t want to turn their TVs on and hear us sound completely and utterly out of touch with real life, arguing over things that don’t matter to them or their family.
If there’s a possibility of making an actual fresh start, it will rest on what one friend refers to as ‘unreasonable generosity’ to create clusters of the type of cooperative political action needed to get anything done in power sharing Northern Ireland. Nothing less will suffice.
As I have argued before, if there’s no policies then there’s no politics and the drift from the ballot box will continue apace. Ms Foster will be judged on actions. Her own. Her party’s. And those of her political opponents cum partners.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty