Ruth Dudley Edwards: I came to greatly admire Arlene Foster’s decency, pluralism and courage

I’m writing this on May 3, Northern Ireland’s hundredth birthday.

Tuesday, 4th May 2021, 11:54 am
Updated Tuesday, 4th May 2021, 12:05 pm
Ruth Dudley Edwards, the author and commentator, writes a column for the News Letter every Tuesday. She is author of 'The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions' and her most recent book is 'The Seven: the lives and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish republic'

My hope is that the next hundred years will be free of the violence and misery that was so often up to now imposed on peaceful people all over Ireland by intolerant, murderous ideologues of all paramilitary gangs.

I’m in reasonably good heart, for the latest high-quality, detailed Kandar opinion poll shows that nationalists north and south are beginning to realise that a united Ireland may seem like a good idea in theory, but is much less so in practice.

Two in three voters in the Republic aspire to a united Ireland, but only one in five would pay more taxes to make it happen. And only 35% in Northern Ireland are in favour of unity.

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Arlene Foster in 2015 after being elected DUP leader. She had the nightmare of being in government with the unrepentant IRA supremo, Martin McGuinness, who had delivered the eulogy in 1986 at the graveside of serial killer Séamus McElwain, who had tried to murder her father, John Kelly

Now, a few words about the brutal overthrow of Arlene Foster, and the grace and dignity of her response.

I’ve known Arlene since the late 1990s, having first met her when she was playing in the Rosslea Accordion Band at an Orange parade in Fermanagh that I was covering as a journalist.

As a friend of David Trimble and no fan of Ian Paisley’s, I was unhappy when she jumped ship to the DUP in 2004, but I thought her motives sincere and found her likeable and approachable.

Later on, I was also delighted by her election to the DUP, and, although like all political leaders she made mistakes along the way, I came greatly to admire her pluralism, decency and courage.

I’m also one of those many to whom privately she has sent empathetic messages of encouragement or support in difficult times.

Prior to her most recent tribulations over the Brexit negotiations, the aggression of Brussels and Dublin (in Varadkar days) that led to Northern Ireland being sacrificed by London for the sake of the UK, she had endured much.

She had the nightmare of being in government with the unrepentant IRA supremo, Martin McGuinness, who had delivered the eulogy in 1986 at the graveside of serial killer Séamus McElwain, who had tried to murder her father, John Kelly.

And, of course, since Stormont was restored long after McGuinness brought it down, the continued influence of shadowy republican figures made government nigh impossible as Sinn Fein relentlessly pursued its campaign to destabilise Northern Ireland and demoralise unionists through the use of lawfare and constant, underhand war on British culture.

Arlene faced too the eternal challenge of being up against brilliant propagandists.

There was the insanity that her perfectly truthful comment apropos Sinn Fein that “If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back and looking for more,” was hysterically represented as a deadly insult.

Yet — just to take the latest manifestation of Sinn Fein hypocrisy — apparently it’s fine for MEP Matt Carty to describe Seamus McElwain, who left John Kelly bleeding from gunshot wounds on his kitchen floor and caused his entire family to flee their beloved little farm — as an “intelligent, humorous, engaging young man” who was “killed in his own country by foreign occupying forces” — Carty’s term for the army of the legitimate government of the United Kingdom.

“Séamus and all those who fought for Irish freedom continue to inspire us,” said Carty, which— as the Irish Independent journalist Stephen Collins — put it, “should put paid to the naïve notion that the Sinn Fein leadership is somehow trapped into an unwilling defence of the IRA because of old loyalties that have no great relevance to current politics.”

The vicious misogyny Arlene has endured would have broken the spirit of many. Do you remember Shinnerbots and feminists making an enormous fuss about Mary Lou McDonald being featured in a cartoon as a witch?

Speaking as somebody frequently thus represented on social media, I regard that nothing compared to what is normal for Arlene.

What I have found particularly unforgivable are the cartoons in, of all places, the London Times, whose chief cartoonist, Peter Brooks, has been representing her for years as a hideous Neanderthal drag queen in Orange regalia. His most recent contribution showed her enormous, uglified and bloodstained face, with a missing front tooth, painted on a Lambeg drum bearing the legend, “Come on Arlene, here’s one from the team,” and being beaten by a bowler hatted old thug with DUP on his collarette.

Arlene is a great fighter, but she’s been aware of the toll all the poison is taking on her family.

It was time to yield to their plea that enough is enough.

In her resignation speech, she said her election as DUP leader “broke a glass ceiling,” and she was glad she inspired other women to enter politics.

“I understand the misogynistic criticisms that female public figures have to take and sadly it’s the same for all women in public life. I want to encourage you to keep going and don’t let the online lynch mobs get you down.”

Taoiseach Michéal Martin has paid a genuine and generous tribute to Arlene.

I think there is a great and important role for her to play as a straight-talking, articulate and fearless independent unionist voice explaining the reality of unionism to the Republic and the rest of the UK.

Bring on the peerage.

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