Arlene Foster’s book collection is unlikely to contain very much that is racy, republican or feminist. I doubt you’d find James Baldwin, Brendan Behan, Germaine Greer, Audre Lorde or Oscar Wilde in unholy alliance upon her shelves, or even a great deal of British comedy, music and multiculturalism. No place either for a minor poet named Bobby Sands, once MP for Arlene’s heartlands – Fermanagh & South Tyrone - so famously and unfairly castigated by Winston Churchill as the home of dreary steeples.
Similarly, there’s unlikely to be any place for Brendan Behan’s younger brother Dominic who composed The Patriot Game. This ballad tells the story of a 1950s cross-border attack on a police station in the Fermanagh village of Brookeborough, which is Arlene Foster’s adopted home town. Two IRA men died on a dreary New Year’s Day in 1957, including teenager Fergal O’Hanlon, and this inspired the younger of the Behan brothers to write that “the love of one’s country is a terrible thing.”
For Irish nationalists, the country is always Ireland as a whole, and it is sometimes characterised by a romantic notion of a nation that is never blameless for its own faults. But for the DUP, the love of one’s country has an entirely different meaning and one that is partially shaped by the failings of Catholic Ireland. They see themselves as British and are fully entitled to that but, as an Irish academic and author living in London, the DUP’s Britain seems a grey place lost in the mists of the 1940s. Winston Churchill could walk into their mythical Britain, and not feel out of place, as they pour scorn on the cataclysms and changes of the outside world.
The DUP’s Britain is without song, sex, equal rights for all citizens, and women controlling their own bodies. Arlene Foster’s sense of Britishness seems based upon “the national flag, the Royal Family, the Armed Forces, British symbols” and “the constitutional reality.” Speaking about Brexit at her party’s annual conference, she advocated fighting for the “best deal for Northern Ireland” but caring about “vulnerable people in Bristol and Birmingham every bit as much as those in Belfast.”
Yet, looking across the water from London, there seems a massive contradiction at the heart of Arlene Foster’s professed British nationalism. Why does she fret over Bristol but voice no concern for some of the most vulnerable citizens of Northern Ireland? And what exactly are British symbols in this day and age? Can we consider Grenfell Tower to be one, or disabled soldiers returning from war in Afghanistan? Or more positively, what about multicultural cities such as Birmingham where all creeds and colours live together side by side? Are the gays of Bristol or the women of Birmingham allowed to have their rights because that’s England after all, but not Brookeborough or Belfast?
And how does this Britain equate to the one that I recognise and enjoy; a place with the diversity of Windrush immigrants, Welsh rugby, post industrial north eastern towns and great curry houses? Why do the DUP celebrate soldiers and flags over the National Health Service, the music of David Bowie, the poetry of Dylan Thomas, and decades of sporting greatness from J.P.R Williams to Ryan Giggs? For me, this is a land of Notting Hill carnivals and ingrained sporting and cultural traditions that range from the Six Nations and fireworks’ night to Burns’ suppers and Hogmanay. That’s the modern Britain I recognise, one that has more in common with the progressive secular southern Ireland of today than it does with the benighted and embittered North.
Why will the DUP not accept rules different to the rest of the UK when it comes to Brexit, but refuse to play by such rules in other matters? They are guilty of rank hypocrisy in their interpretation of what it means to be British, and there is plenty of supporting evidence for that claim. For a start, right after being elected as DUP leader, Arlene Foster told the Guardian: “I would not want abortion to be as freely available here as it is in England and don’t support the extension of the 1967 act.” But if Northern Ireland is such an integral part of the Britain that the DUP claim to love with such undying loyalty, why would it not follow the same rules as England or Scotland? Why would the DUP use a petition of concern to block gay marriage against the wishes of a political majority, when no such mechanism exists in the rest of Britain?
But then it’s not just moral issues that differentiate Northern Ireland, which has the highest net fiscal difference per person in the whole of the UK. Currently it has around a £9 billion fiscal deficit which doesn’t even include the £4.4 billion shared out for services on a UK wide basis. Surely, in a British spirit of fair play, the DUP should address this and give back some of the money, rather than take more and then hold the government to ransom with their demands around Brexit and the Irish border.
Again, in contradiction to her position on Brexit, Arlene Foster has spoken about the need to recognise Northern Ireland’s unique history and geography. Most significantly, this is the only part of the British Isles to have had a legitimate election result overturned because it was not favourable to the government of the day. This decision eventually led to partition and the creation of a state that once again enacted practices that diverged from the rest of Britain. These included an electoral system shaped by gerrymandering, and discrimination in provision of services. That would not have been allowed in mainstream Britain, but was ignored because Northern Ireland has always been treated differently.
This is why the DUP’s sense of Britishness is both hypocritical and out of synch with history. Northern Ireland is different, as even unionists agree when it suits them. You can’t simultaneously be part of modern secular Britain and want to live in a de facto theocracy where minorities have no rights. The DUP’s approach to cultural expression seems a badly directed church-hall version of No Sex Please, We’re British, which again you’re unlikely to find in Arlene Foster’s video collection.
Pardoxically though, Arlene has done more to advance the cause of a united Ireland than the likes of Fergal O’Hanlon ever achieved with bombs and bullets. By not embracing change and open borders, she seems determined not just to alienate Irish nationalists but also progressive young unionists. From my own research in early 2016, it was apparent that nationalists were content to live within a Northern Ireland that promised them equality, but by Arlene Foster’s inability to deliver that, this growing and increasingly confident demographic has become more radicalised in its thinking. Many nationalists now want to see Ireland united in a European framework, as do some young unionists. Indeed some day soon, we might see a statue of the DUP leader beside the great Oscar Wilde in Dublin’s Merrion Square. That would surely be a turn up for the books, whether in her own outdated collection or those still to come in historical accounts that may remember her as the woman who helped foster re-union on the island of Ireland.