Are the DUP sounding “generous and smart” or have they just lost their mojo?

Mick has just credited Arlene Foster and the DUP with making moves toward nationalists which Sinn Fein is struggling to answer.  I see very little that the DUP have done yet that needs an answer. It is not  news that the DUP  don’t want a hard border or that there is a case for some sort of Irish Language  Act, totemic as it is,  particularly when your own contemptuous rejection  whipped up demand for it.  How to answer SF effectively presents the DUP with a different dilemma to the prisoner’s.

If  they concede the power of SF’s  “respect” language  they  risk losing  the chance to rally  their core. If  they adopt it as their own, are  the core and the  waverers they really need to attract  impressed?  Where therefore is DUP authenticity to be found?  And is fighting the Westminster election to win compatible with trying to restore the Assembly?

Language is vital in politics. Just ask “Marine”  the candidate of some a party or other and – what was that surname again? – who lost heavily in the French presidential election.   Emmanuel Macron put the extent of his victory and the severity of her loss to her ranting at him in the presidential TV debate, throwing away at a stroke all the careful detoxifying image building of the Front Nationale over the past five years.  The FN’s “relaunch” and renaming shortly to fight the parliamentary election is seen as necessary but is likely to provoke an internal split between those who insist on reverting to the full fruit of the fascist vine and the modernisers who want to go further towards the centre. This is the familiar dilemma of conviction politics.

Without of course drawing too close a parallel, the DUP  are in a similar bind. How do they broaden their appeal without seeming weak and on the defensive?  Is their pitch being made  more towards to their core to match Sinn Fein’s “surge” in March’s non- Assembly election or  to the wets of Ulster unionism, signalling  that when the chips are down  you know what you have to do?

That shrewd observer of unionist language Sam McBride has written reports  in the Newsletter  on the launch of the DUP election campaign that were at least as interesting as the launch itself. His pieces were suffused with a sense of acute DUP sensitivity that they would have to watch their language without having to change their tune. No easy feat to pull off – and  it showed.

But, in a situation where one word – crocodile – was judged to have driven hordes of voters to Sinn Fein, the DUP now appears to be considering the impact of its language on those who would never vote for DUP candidates.

Mrs Foster said: “In terms of the Irish language act, I said there wouldn’t be an Irish language act in the context of nothing else happening in terms of culture and language.

That contrasts starkly with what Mrs Foster said on February 6 when, to cheers from DUP candidates she said: “I will never accede to an Irish language act.”

“If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back and looking for more.”

That final line haunted Mrs Foster throughout the campaign and contributed to the surge in support for Sinn Fein which saw the party come just 1,168 votes behind the DUP.

After an electoral battering for unionism in March’s Assembly election, the DUP attempted to frame the general election as a referendum on the future of the Union.

The DUP hopes that it will benefit from the reaction of a unionist electorate shocked at just how strongly Sinn Fein performed in the Assembly election.

Mrs Foster said: “This Westminster election gives unionism the chance to get back on the right track.

Setting out a somewhat contradictory analysis of the election’s significance, Mrs Foster argued: “A general election is not a border poll but it is inevitably a referendum on Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

The message then has not quite arrived.   From an earlier piece.

 “And of course we have been in the negotiations for some time and we have been putting forward that we need to respect – not just tolerate, but respect – all cultures in Northern Ireland and that includes, of course, the Ulster Scots, the Orange and the British culture and identity and affirmation of identity.

In a backhanded tribute to Sinn Fein here Arlene Foster has been drawn into using the language of “ respect “ that seemed to have been copyrighted by  the republicans and applying it to her  limited version of unionist culture.  This smacks  of me too-ism and a contrived form of  cultural balance.

“ Equality   Respect, Integrity” is the Sinn Fein badge slogan. This theme, struck as the motive for quitting the Assembly will be carried forward into the Westminster campaign.

Last night at  Sinn Fein’s Westminster campaign launch in Newry, the language soared.

Mr Adams noted that while the election had been called to serve “narrow right wing English Tory interests”, it nonetheless provided  “an opportunity to put forward our alternative and to point out that the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party are ignoring the vote of the people of the North – their people.”

 “June’s election provides an opportunity to take our republican vision; message of hope in the future, of unity, reconciliation and peace out to the electorate. To raise again the right of citizens to equality and parity of esteem and to fundamental human rights. To demand the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. To stand up for an Irish Language Act and for Irish speakers. To stand up for the right of citizens to marriage equality. To stand up for a Bill of Rights. But it is especially crucial that we stand up to and challenge the disaster that is Brexit.”
There is simply no Unionist equivalent of this. It may be becoming robotic but it will still motivate.

To pick it apart, unionists would be drawn them down a road which they would more instinctively follow, to lambast SF for manufacturing excuses to quit the Assembly and strengthen their vote. All the talk about a denial of human rights is humbug as they’re not remotely threatened.

But the DUP realise  that following that course would make a return to the Assembly even harder.  So they button their lip at the cost of losing authenticity.  They recognise the appeal of a positive language across the board but have yet to develop one of their own. In the meantime, they have condemned themselves to sound like a faint echo of Sinn Fein and faintly apologetic for their own cause.

Instead the DUP could adopt much of the same case as SF in order to defend the Union and prepare it for the Brexit future.  But that seems more than they can either swallow or originate.  Perhaps Mrs Foster  can be forgiven for not knowing how far she needs to go  to do the trick with Sinn Fein. She’ll be aware that they have her own position in hand as a hedge against success.

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