Unreciprocated gestures, ground breaking gestures, meaningful gestures, meaningless gestures. The past few weeks might be called the season of gestures.
You had Gerry Kelly shaking hands with Prince Charles, saying “fáilte romhat a Cathal” in Carlisle Circus’ former Methodist Church, now used by our Hindu community and currently being restored. Standing beside him was Carál Ní Chuilín, who looked to be enjoying the irony that the DUP were hiding away from the handshake that would make the headlines, rather than stand beside Sinn Féin, thus missing their own publicity opportunity. Charles Windsor, meanwhile, seemed to be happily confident in taking the place of his mother in trying to build relationships.
Five weeks ago, we had Mary Lou McDonald talking about Derry/Londonderry very pointedly, in a move to try to build confidence as she addressed a cross-community audience discussing economic development. On the same day she announced that her party would back unionist candidate Ian Marshall to the Seanad. The DUP, unconvinced, dismissed the move saying that this “charm offensive won’t cut it”.
You had the Alliance Party, SDLP, Greens and Sinn Féin releasing joint statements on the economic emergency we face with Brexit. It seemed light years from last year when the Alliance Party and the Greens refused to form a progressive electoral pact with SDLP and Sinn Féin, for no particularly obvious reason other than there weren’t enough Protestants voting for the two parties. That grouping, espousing progressive politics, could form an Executive under other circumstances. They have the numbers.
You had Leo Varadkar visiting the Orange Order and Féile an Phobail in the one day, while also taking in a chat with Eileen Paisley in the Bannside Library and a pint in a gay bar. Arlene Foster was once again caught on the wrong side of the line on this with particularly disrespectful comments. Sadly, we have all gotten only too used to such comments and tweets, so we expect nothing more.
Suddenly, last weekend Arlene seemed to have a road to Damascus conversion. She went to celebrate the end of Ramadan with Muslims, she visited the Fermanagh football team, she decided to visit LGBT people, all within hours of each other.
What had happened? Is this the beginning of the end of the nasty DUP? Is this a shift in policy? Is this a new Arlene emerging from the self-imposed chrysalis of insult and disrespect?
Or is it a realisation that nationalism and republicanism present the progressive face and politics of this island? Is it a response to the discourse that is engaged in building a home for all of our populations, with particular attention and respect for those with British identity?
The truth is that there is an active debate on a United Ireland that is engaging far more people than the nihilistic negative politics of the DUP. And that represents a fundamental, realisable challenge to the Union. In addition to the threats presented by demographic change and the economic response to Brexit. This is something that even Peter Robinson recognises, as he mentioned in his recent speech in QUB.
Unionism has at last realised it needs to tell the population here that there is a friendly progressive place called “Northern Ireland” sitting in the Union. So, these are not empty gestures from Foster, they are calculated selfish and strategic gestures. It’s the DUP finally waking up and smelling the coffee. The question is whether anyone is buying.