Can Theresa May learn from Arlene Foster’s folly?

Across the corridors of power in Europe few mainstream leaders are more unpopular than  Theresa May, the parochial and divisive nationalist from England’s home counties.

Britain’s premier is resented by her domestic opponents for acting as Tory leader first and UK Prime Minister second. Within the EU, the perception among May’s former European partners and allies is one of reckless naivety, at best.

As the countdown to formal UK- EU divorce negotiations begins to end, Britain’s leader stands alone and defiant. A unique and brave strategy, perhaps. But then who needs goodwill or allies when you have the subtly of Paul Dacre and foresight of Ian Duncan Smith in your corner?

Whatever else Theresa may be, she is clearly no student of Dale Carnegie.

Since the BrExit vote on June 23rd, 2016, May’s substance-lite, electioneering heavy approach to the coming divorce negotiations has alarmed many, including former Conservative Prime Minister John Major who described it thus.

Obstacles are brushed aside as of no consequence, whilst opportunities are inflated beyond any reasonable expectation of delivery.”

It remains unclear whether May’s rhetoric is a calculated, disciplined attempt to court the approval and cooperation of the Daily Mail editorial board, steward her party, and protect against a populist right flank in England, or the fantasy wet dream politics of an jingoistic Tory cabinet unmoored from reality and unchecked by an opposition party worth the name.

Clearer, however, is the mounting political cost of this belligerent approach, within the UK and across the EU.

As the Republic of Ireland moves towards elections, those European corridors may soon become considerably more hostile to Mrs. May and her hard BrExit anti-EU government.

Should Sinn Féin emerge as Fianna Fáil’s government partners in Ireland’s next dáil, shifting the entire political gravity across Ireland in the process, consider the scene change in Ireland, between Ireland and Britain, and in Brussels.

At time of writing, the Irish Taoiseach is Fine Gael’s Enda Kenny.

With formal divorce negotiations about to begin later this month, Britain’s much-needed EU friends, sympathizers, and pragmatists, like Ireland’s moderate Fine Gael party, are exasperated. (She’ll miss them when they’re gone from office at the moment she needs them most.)

Fine Gael has been caught off-guard (in fairness, who hasn’t?) by May’s choice of behavior. Alarmed and increasingly resentful of a British Prime Minister who seems either unaware or unconcerned with the consequences of her tub-thumping approach, goodwill is thinning. Witness the ineffectiveness of Fine Gael’s quiet diplomacy; cringe at Downing Street’s French wave response to their invite to address Dáil Éireann.

To a European party like Fine Gael whose entire brand proposition is ‘less empty politics, more sober, measured policy’, Theresa May’s tenure is disconcerting and a gift to their domestic political opponents.

Sinn Féin have a rather different political modus operandi to Fine Gael. The tunnel vision similarities to Prime Minister May’s approach are striking.

As Fine Gael and the broader Irish establishment reel from and react to May, Sinn Féin is built to recognize and exploit what May’s politics represent: A political marketing opportunity par excellence.

Put it this way. If Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s recently unseated blustering First Minister, governed and spoke as though she had been purpose-built by Sinn Fein’s marketing and elections department, then Prime Minister May represents an upgrade – their ideal model.

Like Foster, May revels in theatrically provoking the feelings of those who do not share her particular brand of British nationalism. Her followers relish such moments.

But so do her opponents, their numbers gathering, their day coming.

Unlike Foster, May has the capacity to materially alter and injure their quality of life too.

Northern Ireland’s March 3rd snap election just demonstrated the electoral price attached to Foster’s obtuse shannanigans. The electoral costs, across Ireland, of May’s wrecking ball approach are unlikely to be minor either.

The formula is uncomplicated. As May’s government hurts Sinn Féin’s voters and potential voters, north and south, so must Sinn Féin’s domestic rivals, particularly Fianna Fáil, adopt more traditionally nationalistic platforms.

This is not the trajectory of Irish politics compatible with Theresa May’s optimum EU negotiating environment.

Yet, like Foster, on she blunders convinced her new Jerusalem beckons.

Since the 1998 Belfast Agreement, Sinn Fein has spent the past 19 years campaigning in each of the country’s 32 counties against an Irish border that barely existed.

Today, thanks to Arlene Foster and her BeExit friends, and Theresa May and her glorious isolation,  everyone in Ireland is talking about that border.

Soon, every government in Europe will be negotiating its status.

The immediate question is this. As the governments of the EU gather to agree a negotiating position, will the new Irish delegation include an emboldened Sinn Fein presence that represents an all-Ireland mandate?

Strategic Communications Consultant, located Washington DC