Yesterday I was not working when the Nolan Show phoned to say that they were discussing Arlene Foster’s appearance on BBC’s The View.
I had no hesitation in joining the debate because I had seen the Foster interview the night before and had been struck by the point in it in which she became animated and said: “Can you imagine what would happen if I had said I am not sharing power with Michelle O’Neill, I’ll share power with X instead of Michelle O’Neill?
“How dare Sinn Fein tell the unionist people who their leader should be. It is an absolute outrage and most people recognise it as such.”
In the Nolan radio discussion about this I mentioned that I had punched the air on hearing Mrs Foster make that comment, causing a stir among listeners (see Danny Morrison’s tweet, overleaf, which had me chortling).
I had not in fact literally done that but I was pleased to hear the DUP leader hit back. For two months she had been harangued for her conduct.
There has been criticism on these pages, and among the contributors I wrote a piece about the need for unionism to be careful on tone.
But it has long been clear, and recently become even clearer, that republicans will contrive to take offence at anything unionists say that has the remotest sharp edge or even a hint of big political demand. Short of rolling over and cravenly showing ‘respect’ at every Sinn Fein demand for such, a cry of discrimination will go out.
Meanwhile the party can behave almost as it pleases, but face minimal heat – seemingly because of the default assumption that unionists are nasty.
For weeks Sinn Fein has persisted with its demand that Arlene Foster step aside and yet the demand is debated on their terms, ie: ‘why is Mrs Foster not standing aside?’ Mrs Foster’s blunt comment on Thursday night came after she was asked, “what was unreasonable about Sinn Fein’s demand [that she step aside]?”
It is true that reporters also ask Sinn Fein why they think they can make such a demand, but that does not mean the overall response to their conduct is balanced. If it was, then the DUP would be able to issue equivalent demands. But if a unionist party refused to share power with a specific Sinn Fein leader there would be uproar, which is why unionists never even tried to veto sharing power when republicans at Stormont were led by a major terrorist leader.
Again and again Sinn Fein behaves in ways that would be forbidden for unionists.
Michelle O’Neill stormed out of a meeting with James Brokenshire dismissing his ‘waffle. waffle, waffle’. If Mrs Foster had done the same with the Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan it would be interpreted as the ultimate sign of unionist arrogance and bigotry and there would be international calls for her to go.
The ‘Blonde’ row was an example of the ceaseless hunt for proof of unionist prejudice. Mrs Foster’s use of the word blonde when asked on the spot to summarise Ms O’Neill with a single word was a blunder, yet she immediately compensated for it by speaking warmly about the attractiveness of Sinn Fein’s northern leader.
That too has become a ludicrous controversy.
As did her reference to crocodiles, which in the full quote was a reference to the insatiable demands of republicans, not Irish speakers.
This is patently true. Be clear that if a ‘minimal’ Irish language Act is agreed, in a decade there will be a demand for a more aggressive one, and if that is denied (which it must be) there will be fresh crisis and pressure on unionists to compromise.
Finally yesterday on The View, Mrs Foster stood up to some of this nonsense with her reaction.
I mentioned on radio my sense that Sinn Fein’s triumphalist conduct since March 2 was a risky strategy.
It is accepted wisdom that Mrs Foster drove nationalists to the polls. We will see next month whether unionists have been driven to the polls.
If unionism is not motivated after recent developments then it is fair to say unionism is in deep trouble.
If however unionists hold most of their seats and if Theresa May returns to government with a large majority, then it is safe to assume that there will be broad agreement between London and unionists that there the destabilising wing of Sinn Fein is not going to get any reward for its tactics.
I say ‘wing’ because I do not doubt there Sinn Fein folk like the late Martin McGuinness and Daithi McKay, who was on Nolan yesterday (but is no longer in the party), who are willing to make Stormont work.
It is hardly a surprise that there is another element, that wants Stormont to fail. Passionately wanting an Irish Republic is obviously an entirely legitimate project.
But only 28% of voters here back Sinn Fein,and even if that rises to 30% there will still be 70% of voters who are not republican. The former should not be allowed to dictate what happens here.
• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor