An interesting week in Northern Ireland

29 June 2018 - by Gráinne Walsh

It’s all happening in Northern Ireland. Not words you have heard in a while, I know, but lots of people have been busy this week on both sides of the Irish Sea.

While DUP leader Arlene Foster appeared to do most of the heavy lifting earlier in the week, others weren’t left behind. 

Having celebrated Eid al-Fitr with the Muslim community of Belfast, Foster spent last Sunday afternoon in Clones, County Monaghan, watching the Fermanagh men’s Gaelic football team lose to Donegal.

While disappointing from a sporting perspective, Foster’s decision to attend her first GAA match is an important gesture in the de-escalation of cultural tensions between the DUP and Sinn Féin. Both events followed her Policy Exchange speech where she highlighted the pluralism and multiculturalism of unionism, traits at odds with the DUP’s much discussed conservatism. 

Those actions also have to help Theresa May, who has come under pressure from MPs, including many within her own party, about the DUP’s position on abortion and marriage equality, to name just two public policy issues. Let’s face it, the Prime Minister has a tough enough time keeping her government together without having to do battle over the DUP’s social policies.

Efforts to soften the party brand continued with the announcement that Foster was set to attend her first LGBT event, a Pink News reception, in Parliament Buildings at Stormont yesterday evening.

In the meantime, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald gave her first interview to the News Letter, in which she said she would attend an Orange Order parade if invited. She also seemed to drop one of the party’s negotiating red lines – its opposition to Foster’s re-appointment as First Minster in any renewed Executive whilst the RHI Inquiry was ongoing.

On Wednesday, Alliance Party leader Naomi Long announced the selection of Antrim and Newtonabbey Borough councillor John Blair to replace David Ford as an MLA for South Antrim, who is due to step down next month. Former party leader Ford was first elected in 1998 and served as Northern Ireland’s first Justice Minister from 2010 until 2016. Blair will be Northern Ireland’s first openly gay MLA.  

Not to be outdone on the diversity front, changes were also afoot south of the border. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced the appointment of Police Service of Northern Ireland deputy chief constable Drew Harris as the new commissioner of An Garda Síochána.

Harris, whose father was killed by the IRA, is the first person from outside the state appointed to this role and takes on an organisation desperately in need of reform following a litany of scandals and maladministration. Harris’s experience of policing reform was his clear competitive advantage in the recruitment process and will stand him in good stead when he takes up his role in September.

Across in London, the UK Government announced its commitment to the continued delivery of the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with the DUP, stating that it will ensure MLAs continue to receive updates on the work of the Executive departments and seemed to indicate that ways would be found to deliver decisions, particularly on key pieces of infrastructure, beyond the parameters of the deal.

In a nod to nationalist demands the government confirmed that the British Irish Governmental Conference will take place in London in July. It will be interesting to see what makes it onto that meeting agenda – could it remove some blockages?

So, for the first time in a long time, the political mood music in Northern Ireland is more positive. While this week has been a pretty good start, there is some way to go. Let’s see what the end of July and then September brings.

A version of this article was first published on Public Affairs Networking.