Has the DUP’s Arlene Foster got a brain? She’s a lawyer so she may well have (although not necessarily, since some members of that profession possess more in the way of low animal cunning). But let’s give Arlene the benefit of any doubt and say she has a brain. If so, she parked at the studio door before appearing on the Nolan show last night.
The topic was the border poll. Arlene made several points, sometimes cutting across others to make them. I can’t remember them all but two stick in my memory this morning.
The first showed that she really really likes clichés. Her debate opponent was Alex Maskey, so when they came to discuss the possibility of a border poll, Arlene delivered the judgement that Sinn Féin were a party of “economic illiterates”. You've almost certainly heard the term before. It had its origin in the famous debate some years ago between Michael McDowell and Gerry Adams on RTÉ, where McDowell was seen to have exposed Adams’s ignorance of economics with a slam-bam-game-set-and-match disposal of the Sinn Féin president’s thinking on the economics of the south. "Economic illiterates" has now has passed into the off-the-shelf vocabulary of people who are averse to thinking and averse to Sinn Féin. If you go back and listen to the recording of that debate, McDowell certainly emerges as the one who talks with an air of great certainty, as did Arlene last night. The only catch is, the economic vision pushed by McDowell and practised by his government fell to catastrophic pieces a few months later, when the entire economic edifice of the south did an imitation of the Twin Towers on 9/11. In short, McDowell was the one preaching Stone Age economics and Adams the one attempting to resist it. Yet Arlene chose to parrot the phrase again last night rather than use her brain.
The second incident which showed switched-off grey cells ( to put it charitably) was when she shouted Alex Maskey down as he tried to make the point that a border poll would ultimately be held. Having made it clear the previous day that she was all for calling Sinn Féin’s “bluff” about a border poll, she informed Maskey last night that a border poll would “never happen”. That went down well with the largely unionist audience (that’s two weeks in a row, guys) but it also denies what’s in the GFA document: that the British Secretary of State should call a border poll when she judges there are numbers sufficient to affect a constitutional change. It even suggests, according to the BBC’ s Mark Davenport, that she can call one more or less because she thinks it’s a good idea. So either the GFA has been scrapped while we weren’t looking or Arlene was showing that her debate line was unencumbered by anything like awkward fact.
I was in the audience myself and, as expected, got asked my opinion. I had time to say I thought it would be a good idea, because the border has been the cornerstone of our main political parties and our voting patterns since the inception of the state, and ....At that point Stephen was hurrying on to the next comment.
And that was the final, slightly depressing feeling I was left with at the end of the night. I was sitting beside an English journalist, who got to speak briefly during the debate about gay marriage. At the end of the show I asked him what did he think? “Infuriating and frustrating” was the essence of his reply. The BBC’s founder, Lord Leith, declared that the Corporation's mission was to “inform, educate and entertain”. Last night’s show certainly gave the first and second of Leith's goals a wide berth. When and if a border poll is called, let's hope it's characterised by thought, discussion and informed debate. In short, the opposite of last night's show.