Arlene Foster's mask slips to reveal all the old hatreds

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

— Arlene Foster, DUP leader

ONE of the primary duties of a political handler is to ensure that the face, the mask their master presents to the world, is fixed. The mask-cum-face, like every other mirror in a politician’s armoury, must stay on message. It must not deviate. It is part of a contrived image built to reassure and cajole. The face-cum-mask must sometimes conceal difficult truths. It must, more usually, radiate collegiality. A good political handler ensures the mask-cum-face almost never slips.

Equally, a masterful handler, a PJ Mara, a Peter Mandelson or a Steve Bannon, understands that if the carefully crafted mask does slip it must be for a very good reason. There must be a dividend for revealing your hand. A calculated moment, a flourish on a metaphorical Lambeg drum must achieve something, maybe reach a constituency once taken for granted but thought to be wavering. This is especially true ahead of a difficult election, brought about by your own hubris. Only Democratic Unionist Party leader and erstwhile First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, or her handlers know if her statement ruling out the possibility of Stormont legislation to support Irish was a slip of the mask or a considered call-out to the fringes of her party.

Whichever it was, the language was offensive: “If you feed a crocodile, it will keep coming back for more,” she declared. Anyone who understands participatory democracy could not use such language to describe a growing proportion of the population she was, as First Minister, obliged to represent fairly. “If there was to be an Irish language act, there should be a Polish language act because more people in the North speak Polish than Irish,” she continued, insulting Irish speakers and Poles with a sweep of her latent sectarianism.

Whichever it was, a slip or a salvo, it was a chilling reminder of the contempt autonomous, bigoted Unionism directed at the North’s Nationalist community in the B Special decades, the institutionalised hatred that made carnage inevitable. Mrs Foster’s dismissal may have been cheered in the never-never-never Orange halls of Northern Ireland but, tragically, it will have got an even warmer reception in the backrooms where Sinn Féin’s near-permanent consistory can select leaders — Michelle O’Neill — without even the pretence of engaging in a democratic process. It is hard to think of a declaration so helpful to Sinn Féin since the days of Margaret Thatcher’s occasionally unhinged bellicosity.

Mrs Foster’s integrity is in question because of the Renewable Heat Incentive grants scandal — she insists she would be vindicated by any inquiry — but now her suitability as a leader in a modern, inclusive parliament is in question. That she and her party campaigned for Brexit, but the North’s electorate rejected that call, strengthens that impression.

This Republic is far from perfect but what a sad, hateful place Northern Ireland seems to be. What a tragedy.


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