I would contextualise David McCann’s well- balanced report of Arlene Foster’s partial climbdown a little differently. How will she now follow through? Gerry Adams is bursting to know. He or Michelle O’Neill and will challenge her shortly. All the other parties will join in the chorus.
When columnist Eilis O’Hanlon, a keen debunker of Sinn Fein positions joins the club of critics and accuses Arlene Foster of lack of commitment to “the long term interests of unionism” we know the pressure is on the former first minster after her dismissive“ feeding the crocodile” comments on the fairly peripheral issue of Sinn Fein’s demand for an Irish Language Act .
She made them to the Belfast Telegraph’s Noel McAdam, a very experienced political correspondent who is as steady as a rock and avoids rushing to judgement. Why bother poking a stick at a crocodile and risk a feeding frenzy against yourself ? Even Noel was moved to conclude:
But perhaps, just perhaps, she went slightly too far in giving her opponents the opportunity to, well, snap back.
And her outburst – for that is how it came across – threatened to overshadow the other carefully constructed messages in her lengthy address.
Sinn Fein couldn’t have been happier when the remarks were relayed to them at their candidate launch in Belfast a few hours later.
“See you later, alligator,” quipped Gerry Adams. And new Northern leader Michelle O’Neill – whom Mrs Foster had characterised as being used by Mr Adams like a glove puppet – declined to become involved in “negativity”.
But Sinn Fein can be expected to use this over the next few weeks. It could all end in crocodile tears.
Eilis went much further.
Arlene sounded as if she still resented sharing (power) at all.
Her mind ought to be on the bigger picture. More and more Catholics are willing to self-identify as Northern Irish.
This is their opportunity to persuade the nationalist community that they have nothing to fear from remaining in the UK.
Instead, the First Minister went out of her way to deliberately belittle them and make them feel illogically demanding. Politically, it makes no sense.
The wise thing would be to accommodate Irish language and culture, thereby removing that as a weapon from your opponents. On a human level, it was just obnoxious.
For moderate unionists, who’ve lent the DUP their support in recent years, that has to be an unsettling echo of the bigotry of old.
What would Arlene Foster rather have – a Northern Ireland in the UK, where there is as much cultural Irishness available for any community that wants it, or to stoke a permanent disconnect amongst hundreds of thousands of her fellow citizens, just because they happen to care about keeping alive a connection to a culture which she personally finds disagreeable?
The choice ought to be a no-brainer and the fact that the First Minister fluffed it so badly not only sets a serious question mark over her commitment to non-partisanship, but also over her strategic approach to advancing the long-term interests of unionism.
Arlene has at last begun a climb down of few steps, not amounting to an actual apology or admitting a real mistake, making the Irish News her vehicle of choice.
In an unusual move, the former first minister has used The Irish News as a platform and appears to acknowledge that some recent remarks went too far. She even speaks of “building a new spirit of co-operation”.
Mrs Foster sets out to redress the perception that she is hostile to nationalism and republicanism, insisting “nothing could be further from the truth”.
If history teaches us anything about Northern Ireland, we know that it is only when all sections of the community support the governing arrangements and are content that politics will work for anyone.”
Indeed there were many positive things achieved by Martin McGuinness and I during our time in government that were beneficial to everyone.”
Addressing the criticism levelled at her over “don’t feed the crocodile” remark and her attitude to the Irish language act, Mrs Foster says those who “genuinely” want to speak Irish are “entitled to do so as part of the increasing diversity of our society”.
“However there can be no escaping the fact that some have politicised the language and if we are to move forward together we most do so from a position of mutual respect for each other’s cultures and traditions,” she said.
“My opposition to the political demand of an Irish Language Act is not based on a hostility to the Irish language but on potentially costly proposals which would guarantee Irish being treated as the same as English, affirmative action for Irish speakers in the civil service and the creation of criminal offences for failure to co-operate with a new Irish language commissioner.”
The DUP leader believes the funds would be better spent on health and education.
With any climbdown the problem is how to prevent an avalanche. Will she now negotiate over an Irish Language Act after flatly insisting she would ” never agree”? The word ” never” creates a hostage to fortune. Shades of Paisley’s “never , never , never ” over the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. She will be keenly watched now for how she can incorporate this modest gesture into her electoral appeal.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London