The Arlene factor: her abrasive personality is part of a tradition that has had its day

Anger is a factor often overlooked in politics.   Les Enragés were the militants who spoke up vituperatively  for the poor in the French Revolution. Jihad is the product of demented rage.  Dispossession  or the threat of it is often the  justification for anger.  Fear and insecurity are  close relatives.  Arrogance thinly concealing both is its bedfellow. Anger has been fundamental in our politics and remains an expression of our contested differences from the streets to the pulpit and the debating chamber. It  gives expression to the deep resentments that led to violence. In our culture we often recognise it as sectarianism come to the surface. Paradoxically the “men of violence” kept their rage under control; you have to keep your head to run a terror campaign. The constraints among unionist politicians therefore were fewer.

The angriest man I ever knew was Ernest Baird, in private life an affable pharmacist, in politics the splenetic leader of Vanguard.  Paisley had a wider repertoire but rage was never far from the surface, often deployed as a tactic but sometimes genuine, even in his last days when he gave vent to Lear –like rage at being deposed.  Once he ranted at me on camera for fully fifteen minutes for daring to suggest he was angling for Protestant votes locally when he was trying to spread his appeal to Catholics province-wide in a Euopean election.  Shortly afterwards  he behaved as if it never happened and affability was restored.

Peter Robinson is a very different character who mostly kept rigid discipline in his long  frustrating years as Paisley’s deputy. But who can forget who saw it, his white faced,  contorted fury in answering vague charges of petty corruption?  At the time he had had a lot to cope with in his not so private life.

The rant is part of  their natural form of expression like the primitive sermons of old, beginning  like a change of key and  as if the God of Wrath had set them off.  In  further out religion  they go in for speaking in tongues.  Nigel Dodds the Cambridge graduate  is  a connoisseur of the modern minor rant in the Commons. Lesser exponents – only lesser because they dilute it with their particular sense of humour – are Gregory Campbell and Sammy Wilson. You will have your own favourites. All of them in their way are minor revolutionaries –   enragés   who overthrew the Ulster Unionists and can’t quite believe they’ve come into their own.  As part of the price of that victory they  have to deal with the other side close up. For them that is an uncomfortable reality.

How does Arlene Foster fit into this pantheon, as a former Ulster Unionist and a woman in a deeply sexist environment who rose to the top of a small tree through her talents and Peter Robinson’s perceptive patronage?  Did she make it because she seemed to be so unlike any of them  or because she finally resembled them?

 Newton Emerson has a less generous take than I on the RHI affair, arguing how a botched scheme became a crisis largely due to her abrasive personality. Would he write like this if Foster was a man?  While her style is inseparable from her femininity his criticism is fair-minded if very widely drawn.  She also inherited a badly flawed system.

The one person who should take  his piece to heart is Arlene Foster. I hope she reads it self critically. After all she’s Church of Ireland.

Combativness is part of the stuff of even normal politics. It is inevitable when  the opposition includes rivals on your own side. But to be fully effective  in cross community government, the tribal appeal is not enough.   To succeed, you have to get inside the others’ head instead of getting under their skin. And for goodness sake try to leaven your forensic skills with a lighter touch.  Study Nicola Sturgeon perhaps?

And sectarianism? What is there left to fight about? What prize is there still to be won? Unity or Union require the consent of the other side, no longer their defeat. So being more civil to them would be prudent.

I have a feeling  that the RHI affair will not prove fatal  to her and not only because she will retain  DUP support. She has  the ability and resilience to survive and with something of a makeover and  perhaps growing inner confidence, to flourish.

Within months of becoming DUP leader, First Minister and an election poll-topper, she looks permanently damaged by a green energy scheme botched years ago under her remit. The fallout is destroying individuals and institutions around her – and so much of it seems due to Foster’s character, which leaves her unable to take or share responsibility, to be civil under pressure or to recognise her limitations.

By the time she made a straightforward and semi-contrite statement to the assembly yesterday, it was too late. Her earlier contempt for Sinn Féin had caused a mess so catastrophic that both executive parties together could not untangle it, while the speaker compromised his own office trying to defend it. In unprecedented scenes, everyone but the DUP walked out while Foster delivered her remarks, her authority draining away.

Adds later.. Brian Feeney says it out loud in the Irish News – a compelling reason for greater prudence?

In seven years there will be a nationalist voting majority. That doesn’t automatically mean a Sinn Féin first minister at the following election but Foster’s actions on a daily basis make it more likely. Under her leadership the DUP will never be anything other than a narrow divisive backward-looking sectarian clique. While it’s conceivable some Catholics may vote UUP, Foster will ensure none will ever vote DUP….

What is certain is that Foster is singularly unable to prepare unionists for the radical and dramatic changes in their political circumstances coming down the road in the next decade. Concepts such as partnership and power-sharing evidently remain beyond her grasp. As they say, it’s all about Arlene.

As one council district after another slips out of unionist control someone else is needed to reconcile unionists to minority status.