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24 April 2017

Ruth Dudley Edwards: With Foster embracing the Irish language, chief mourner O'Neill has got some ground to make up

Michelle O'Neill
Michelle O'Neill

It's not often that Sinn Fein loses a PR battle with the DUP, but yesterday, Michelle O'Neill lost game, set and match to Arlene Foster.

 On the same day that it became public that Mrs O'Neill would on Sunday be eulogising eight experienced IRA assassins killed by the SAS 30 years ago as they attempted to murder policemen in Loughgall, Mrs Foster rose above traditional DUP churlishness about the Irish language by visiting Our Lady's Grammar School in Newry and making a creditable stab at expressing her thanks with "Go raibh maith agat". 

In fairness to Mrs O'Neill, eulogising republican terrorists is part of her job description and she would have agreed to that before the Westminster election was called, but the timing was unfortunate.

It was only two days ago that she expressed her disappointment "that parties which are opposed to Brexit and Tory cuts and which are pro equality have not been able to agree a progressive alliance to contest the Westminster election".

If she'd any hope of persuading Alliance, the Greens and the SDLP to reconsider, she's blown it.

None of those parties take a strong enough moral line about cooperating with apologists for murder.

Indeed, some of their members seem to think that justification of terrorism is a lesser sin than being against gay marriage, but there are limits. Parties appealing for centrist support would have trouble on the doorstep explaining why they were in cahoots with the chief mourner for what Sinn Fein call the "Loughgall Martyrs".

Mrs Foster infuriated many moderate nationalists during the Stormont election campaign by her tactlessness about the Irish language, but last week she had asked to meet non-political Irish language enthusiasts so she could "respect and better understand" the language and culture. Among the earliest to respond was Fiona McAlinden, principal of Our Lady's.

"We are very proud of our Irish department, the achievements of our pupils and we thought we could showcase what we do," she told the BBC later.

The school put on a drama and songs for Mrs Foster and young women told her what the language meant to them.

Clearly, Mrs Foster was at her friendly best, telling the school that she was on "a journey" with the language and that people have nothing to fear from engaging with another culture.

There was no mistaking the warmth between her and three teachers in the video of their goodbyes.

She tweeted afterwards about the picture of two girls saying "Together we are strong" in both languages: "Beautiful gift from Our Lady's Grammar School, Newry which I visited today."

"Thank you," tweeted the school, "to Mrs Arlene Foster for accepting our invitation to visit Our Lady's today. We were delighted with her."

Meetings are being arranged with other Irish advocates, which pleases even people like me, who haven't spoken Irish for years but have an affection for it.

It is a fine language, and - like my mother, who was bi-lingual - I've hated seeing it used as a political weapon.

Sinn Fein will do their best to reclaim Irish as a weapon, but if Mrs Foster goes on learning, and Irish speakers keep helping her, who knows?

Maybe other unionists can follow in the footsteps of Linda Ervine, Chris McGimpsey and many previous generations of Ulster Protestants and reclaim the language for everyone. Yesterday, Mrs Foster had the last word.

"It is disappointing," she said, "that when I am trying to make this a shared place for everybody in Northern Ireland that other leaders are doing things that frankly are wrong and backward-looking."

I don't envy the Sinn Fein scriptwriter who's been given the job of writing Mrs O'Neill's response.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

The paperback of Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic will be published on April 23.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards