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The Norn Iron Lady

04/05/2016 10:47

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She is articulate and assertive, and she can dispatch a determined opponent with a withering glance and stinging retort.

She straddles a corner of European politics and commands respect from adversaries and allies alike. This isn't Nicola Sturgeon or Angela Merkel, but another strong and popular stateswoman - Arlene Foster.

The Fermanagh woman was made DUP leader in December 2015, and in January 2016 she became the First Minister of Northern Ireland (succeeding Peter Robinson and Ian Paisley).

Northern Ireland is an extremely strange place; often misunderstood and misrepresented; more frequently forgotten.

Politics is about ancestral passions, not policies or achievements.

The mainland British don't want to know us, nor do the southern Irish. While London and Dublin cement and reinforce their entente cordiale, the disputatious Orange and Green Irish of the Black North battle on, shooting and maiming with insult and invective.

Ireland's unionists pose as the most British, and republicans on the Crown's Irish soil posture as the most Irish of them all.

Me, I'm British and Irish, for as Heaney said, "two buckets are easier carried than one, I stand in-between."

Not much has changed from when Terence O'Neill explained Northern Ireland politics to the House of Lords in 1982:

"I have found that there is an understandable tendency for people in Britain to find it very hard to understand the situation in Northern Ireland... As some of your Lordships have tried to explain this afternoon, politics in Northern Ireland are totally different from politics here. While the election here might have been fought on who governs Britain, the election in Northern Ireland was fought on the usual basis of Protestant and Catholic."

Children are still educated apart and hardwired with antipodal understandings of Anglo-Irish history. Protestant schools teach of the gallantry of Britain, Catholic schools teach its brutality.

The green and orange borders aren't just physical, but mental too.

Our commonality is often only a "blind astonishing remorse" for things now ended, as Philip Larkin wrote.

Parades are still a Goya nightmare, and politics is like a Hogarth cartoon.

But change has happened, modest and ponderous. Change is starker outside politics. Increasingly the divide is between liberals and conservatives.

The old moulds remain, but people more and more have left the quagmire state to find a new sod for life and debate.

Arlene Foster is an emblem of this change in Northern Ireland; ponderous and imperceptible as it is, as blunt as she is.

For a land of two orthodoxies, fixed and immutable, even modest change is revolutionary.

She is a woman. She is a former UUP politician, marking her as instinctively more liberal than the traditional DUP member and representative.

She is self made. A daughter of a farmer and RUC man. An everyday woman who's life has been the protestant parable of a generation who've endured the Troubles.

Parallels may be made between Arlene and contemporary female leaders such as Sturgeon and Merkel, but it is with the late Margaret Thatcher that she has most affection for, and most political resemblance to.

Arlene Foster is courteous and consummately professional, but can be raucously caustic; just like Thatcher. They're both conservative and eurosceptic.

Both British female leaders met with IRA ambush. Yet, while facing atrocity with defiance, pragramatism prevails for the sake of the future.

Both are obstinate in their convictions, are rooted in the past but have a vision for their country beyond idealistic plans and projects.

Arlene Foster told Jenny McCartney in an interview with the Sunday Times that Margaret Thatcher is a "heroine" of hers. She repeated this to David McCann of Slugger O'Toole.

But like Thatcher, Foster continues to divide as much as she inspires the people. Many nationalists will see her as a leader of a party whose founder called Catholics "vermin". Many liberals see her as firmly under the thumb of the traditional DUP wing, as much as they long for some liberal Arlene putsch.

Arlene is firm like Thatcher, but under her leadership Northern Ireland is fluid.

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It's mixed signals in Arlene's Northern Ireland; it's about change and conservation; about the past and the future; about normal politics and tribal politics.

Northern Ireland has an image problem, and Arlene has targeted this by calling for pride in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland also has a problem economy, and Arlene wants to change this under her ten-point plan. She has made a call for more and better jobs, and her electioneering is all about waving placards, just as it is in America.

Yet the DUP have asked the electorate not to judge them on their political record, but to judge them against the spectre of a Sinn Fein First Minister.

And so, while the Terence O'Neill formula of Catholic-Protestant voting remains, it is no longer hegemonic.

As Sam McBride wrote, the political orbit of Northern Ireland has changed radically, we could be witnessing "the final fling" of the old sort of politics.

For so long Northern Ireland politics has been about republican's sense of destiny, and unionism's despondency. This too is no more.

In the Irish News Newton Emerson and Fionnuala O'Connor penned two milestone articles.

Unionism, so long unfashionable, has seized the momentum; it is "perked-up" beside "stale nationalism" wrote O'Connor. 'Unionism is undergoing a remarkable evolution' Emerson wrote.

Arlene Foster has inherited a party and country of deep factions, but change is in the wings. There will be no Great Leap Forward, just small plodding advances.

Arlene Foster has a young family, her youngest is just nine years old. While her father was nearly killed by the IRA, it is clearly for the sake of her children and all the young people of Northern Ireland that she is working with former mortal enemies.

But she must face down other unpleasant die-hards. The unionist backwoodsmen of the DUP who want the status quo. Unionists want the Union, but the Union wants catholics and liberals. Arlene Foster must surely know this, and this will be the test of her leadership; if she can help to truly break the old moulds and make Northern Ireland truly British - secular and multicultural.

It's a Irish slang term to call the Ulster six counties "Norn Iron" - and Arlene Foster can be the Norn Iron Lady.

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