SISTER ACT

Boris and FosterThere are certain tunes that need to be pensioned-off from their role as tired musical cues in TV documentaries about specific eras of recent history. Enough. ‘You Really Got Me’ by The Kinks when we’re talking ‘Swinging 60s’; ‘Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)’ by The Pet Shop Boys when we’re talking the Yuppie 80s; and ‘Sisters Are Doing it For Themselves’ by The Eurythmics when we’re talking the rise of feminism. This is nothing to do with the individual merits of the individual songs – I personally love the Ray Davies songbook and recognise what a landmark in pop culture the first Kinks hit really was; but ‘You Really Got Me’ has been so overused as lazy shorthand to retrospectively define a moment in time by unimaginative TV producers and editors that both it and the endlessly recycled Pathé footage of Carnaby Street boutiques it seems permanently conjoined with have now gone way beyond retirement age.

As for the Feminism Theme Tune, it’s not a song I ever cared much for anyway; had it not been taken up by the same guilty parties for the same reason as the other two pieces of music, it would probably have been justly forgotten. I only really rated The Eurythmics when they were doing their electronic ‘Synth Pop’ stuff in 1983/4; the minute they hit big in the States and started wearing that archetypal mid-80s badge of MTV honour – i.e. black female backing singers in leather skirts – they ceased to be of interest. Hiring Aretha Franklin to duet with Annie Lennox on that particular hit was a further indication of the clout the duo wielded at the time, but I don’t exactly think it’s up there with ‘Respect’ or ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ in the Queen of Soul’s illustrious back catalogue. Anyway, where does Arlene Foster fit into all this, you might well ask – or not, as the case may be.

I suppose I was looking ahead to how the last, say, ten years of politics in this country might be looked back on in a decade or two from now – and what tunes the TV producers of tomorrow might choose to frame their documentaries; I had a scary premonition that ‘Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves’ may be exhumed once again to soundtrack a period in which talk of glass ceilings for female politicians would rightly seem nonsensical. I remember at one point in the 2010s, it belatedly dawned on me just what a change had occurred. Women were leading almost all of the political parties that were impacting on people’s lives. Regardless of one’s personal opinion of either the politicians in question or their respective parties, it seems churlish not to recognise the electorate was witness to a quiet revolution. Tellingly, the party which was the keenest to promote the theory that women in politics were thwarted in their progress at every turn by toxic masculine MPs was the only one not led by a woman; indeed, Labour remains the only major political party in the UK not to have been led by a woman. I wonder why? Maybe because, outside of the Identity Politics bubble that has become Labour’s comfort zone, people don’t place such great emphasis on their sex or use it as an excuse to obscure their true failings. They just get on with it.

The Conservative Party leader (and Prime Minister) 2016-19, Theresa May; the SNP leader (and First Minister of Scotland) from 2015 onwards, Nicola Sturgeon; the Plaid Cymru leader 2012-18, Leanne Wood; the DUP leader 2015-21 and First Minister of Northern Ireland 2016-21, Arlene Foster; Sinn Féin leader from 2018 onwards, Mary Lou McDonald. The Green Party has been led or co-led by a woman since 2008, most prominently by Caroline Lucas; the Liberal Democrats had a few months with Jo Swinson in charge until she famously lost her seat at the 2019 General Election; and even UKIP had a woman – Diane James – leading it for 18 days in 2016. At the 2017 General Election, all four corners of the UK were led by women. What’s that crunching beneath the heels on the floor of the debating chamber? Must be the glass that fell from the ceiling when it was smashed, I suppose.

Sturgeon aside, the woman who had the most longevity – and courted the most controversy – as leader of a UK political party has finally fallen on her sword after six eventful years, Arlene Foster. Faced with little option but to step down following a vote of no confidence in her leadership by her peers, the now-ex DUP leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland has hardly left Ulster a better place than she found it when succeeding Peter Robinson in 2015. Co-ruling the Northern Ireland Executive with Martin McGuinness until the Sinn Féin man’s resignation in January 2017, Foster demonstrated all the worst bullish hallmarks of Unionist intransigence at this key moment in Northern Ireland’s recent history. The scandal of the Renewable Heat Incentive project – one Foster had been cheerleader for during her stint as the Province’s Minister for Enterprise and Investment – eventually cost the taxpayer the best part of £490 million and was mired in corruption; McGuinness pressed Foster to step down but she refused and played the sexist card by accusing her detractors of misogyny. McGuinness’s resignation and the scandal plunged Stormont into a state of suspended animation it didn’t eventually stir from until last year.

With her joint stewardship of the Executive scarred by the three-year deadlock, Foster received a glimpse of power beyond Stormont in the aftermath of the 2017 General Election, when Theresa May’s decimated majority forced the desperate PM to broker an ‘agreement’ between the Conservatives and the DUP, a glorified Lib-Lab Pact for the Brexit era. This mirage of importance on the mainland gave Unionists their greatest sense of punching above their weight since Ian Paisley had withdrawn support for Ted Heath’s Tories in the wake of the Sunningdale Agreement on power-sharing, an action which played its part in Heath’s loss of power in February 1974. However, the DUP were to learn getting into bed with the Tories wasn’t so much the beginning of a beautiful affair as a shoddy one-night stand; as soon as the Conservatives won a landslide in 2019, they dropped the DUP like the proverbial causal conquest.

At the time of the 2017 agreement, the company the Tories were now keeping certainly provoked many questions, not least the DUP opinion on certain social issues – chiefly abortion and same-sex marriage, both of which have been traditional no-go areas for Unionists. Seemingly out of step with progressive thinking in Ulster, let alone the rest of the UK, the DUP suffered a serious setback at the 2019 General Election, finding itself for the first time since partition as the minority Northern Ireland party at Westminster. Yes, Sinn Féin MPs famously don’t take their seats there, but Nationalists now outnumbered Loyalists on the list of Northern Ireland politicians elected to Parliament. With Sinn Féin electoral successes to follow in the Republic, the prospect of a united Ireland suddenly seemed closer than it had at any time since 1921.

And then there were the realities of Brexit implementation on the Province, the threat it posed to the Good Friday Agreement, and finally the resumption of serious civil disorder on streets where not much of an excuse is ever really needed for a tear-up. Foster decided to jump before she was pushed, though the move by 80% of MPs and MLAs within her own party to oust her being apparently prompted over fears of Foster becoming ‘too moderate’ perhaps tells you all you need to know about the future direction – and survival – of Unionism in Northern Ireland. That said, Arlene Foster’s tenure in power has been just as bogged by scandal, corruption, controversy and failure unrelated to her sex as those faced by her female contemporaries in other corners of the country – which surely proves the sisterhood did indeed achieve political equality in the end.

© The Editor

2 thoughts on “SISTER ACT

  1. That Arlene Foster survived so long in the bear-pit that is Northern Ireland politics must alone be some sort compliment on her skills, the fact of being female may or may not have influenced that longevity but she certainly weathered some stormy times.

    However, the truth is that any leader of the Unionist cause must now be seen as captain of a ship which is already holed below the water-line and is destined to sink without trace in the visible future. It has been quite clear since the Good Friday Agreement that the joint strategy of the UK and Republic governments is for a managed process of integration of the two parts of the island, a process which the machinations of Brexit have certainly helped to highlight for those with eyes to see.

    Setting aside any jingoistic stuff, it is quite nonsensical for that compact island to be divided into different administrative zones: the patch-up bodge-job created in 1922 to assuage sensitivities is long past its use-by date, it is time everyone grew up and worked together to achieve a single harmonious outcome for all residents of the island.

    It is a different world from 100 years ago, certainly very different from the days when the fierce religious differences in force there promoted discrimination and precluded peaceful co-habitation, the Catholic Church in the Republic is now almost as spent a force as Protestantism elsewhere, so that particular brand of hatred-inspired separation no longer has any basis in fact or logic.

    The re-unification of Ireland will happen eventually, with or without Arlene Foster or whichever blinkered puppet replaces her, the process will be simpler, more peaceful and ultimately more successful the sooner that inevitable direction is acknowledged by all, whatever their gender.

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    1. I remember there was a point a few years back when Northern Ireland was referred to as ‘the last colony’, and one certainly gets the impression that Ulster today is echoing the actions of an old colonial possession in the run-up to inevitable independence. The office now relinquished by Arlene Foster feels increasingly redundant, like that of Governor or Viceroy; and if the feeling amongst her DUP colleagues is that Foster is ‘too moderate’, it’s evident the writing is well and truly on the wall for Unionist influence in the Province. I mean, where the hell do they go from here if Arlene Foster is too moderate?

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