Jude Collins

Thursday, 24 January 2013

How smart is Arlene Foster?

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.


  1. Nolans "TV Show" depresses me - it is the current affairs equivalent of Jeremy Kyle or Gerry Springer, albeit Norn Iron style. His shows feed of raising tensions and histeria. He never allows debate to develope into something meaningful, prefering to encourage the decension into a shouting match - which many of the audience have come for. It is a far cry from Spotlight etc - I just hope that for serious issues people have the sense not to allow their opinions to be formed based on this show.

    Nolans self importance and need to speak always gets in the way of a genuine and thoughtful debate breaking out. He never seems to grasp the important parts of issues and develope them as Curruthers or Thompson do - instead preferring to ask juvenile questions such as "but which health system do you think is the best..?"

    1. Are you William Crawley?

  2. Arlene Foster proves the point; you should never equate an education with intelligence.

  3. How do you know that the audience was "largely unionist"? I had the impression that a fair number were there to see Nathan Carter!!

  4. Jude
    I haven't seen it yet so I can't comment on Arlene,but Nolan is invariably depressing unless you approach it as entertainment.
    It is not a forum for serious discussion or examination of the issues.
    Like going to the circus, one wonders if it's not a little bit cruel to the performers.

  5. I have to say I really enjoy reading your blog Jude but did today's instalment have to start with "Has the DUP’s Arlene Foster got a brain?"?

    Had you have started from the second paragraph your points would've carried much more weight.

    Although I empathise with your frustration at the Nolan Show, perhaps some of that frustration, seeped through this morning!

  6. Assuming you still read the Irish News,what do you make of Newton Emerson's article today?This seems to suggest that Gerry Adams illiteracy in economics still continues.

  7. Jude surely you should know by now that Stephen Nolan likes to listen to Stephen Nolan more than anyone else . After last weeks show the BBC should have taken it off the air and consigned it to the dustbin.

  8. Anon 13:21 - I based my estimate on the applause for Arlene's contributions, the, um, less vociferous response to Alex and the comments/questions coming from the audience.
    Unknown (makes a change) 16:28 - You may be right - most pieces are better when you cut the first paragraph. But I think it's a question worth asking, because she really didn't employ it a great deal on the show. She out-sloganed AM, but that's such a waste of opportunity to put a case.
    Anon 16:40 - I stopped reading the VO on a regular basis once its best columnist left... I'm not remotely surprised that NE does the economic illiterate thing - cf Animal Farm - repeat something often enough and it becomes accepted truth.
    Thanks to all for contributions, positive and negative. If I normally don't respond it's because I've other bits of life to live. AND my blog is usually enough for one day ...

    1. "Anon 16:40 - I stopped reading the VO on a regular basis once its best columnist left" who's this? Yourself?

    2. Anon 20 32
      We may presume that Jude never underestimates his own abilities ! He must prefer the political environment of the Andersonstown News to that of the Irish News.

  9. Once a Unionist says something will NEVER,NEVER,NEVER happen,it invariably does.

  10. Alex Maskey wasnt great on the economic argument on the show. How hard is it to argue that savings from ending duplication of services + additional tax revenues from transfer of fascal powers > real block grant.

  11. Lets be honest our politicians are next to useless. Maskey has been a republican and SF politician for years and yet couldnt tell us one real reason why we should vote for a United Ireland. Arlene was no better and seemed to think the future of Northern Ireland is to continue to beg for money from mummy England the problem being mummy England is broke and wont be able to afford our pocket money for much longer.

  12. I have to say I'm not a big Nolan fan, I certainly don't like his techniques particularly when he's distracted and sometimes allows rambles. It's time that the serious nature of NI's problems are taken out of the light entertainment arena of the Nolan Show. This is serious material and it will only be progressed by responsible reporting and debating. NI politics is scary!

  13. Jude,

    ...whatever about Arlene, the boul Alex was awful. The economic beauty contest between the merits of the link with Britain or with the South is best avoided until the debt issue in the South is resolved and the Germans have departed from running the show. To be fair to Alex he may have been told to whitter on about the GFA if asked any difficult questions like on the NHS - but it was painful to watch.

    But as the (other) Jurno from the crowd pointed out Arlene wouldnt be interested in a UI if Ireland was the richest country on Earth and SF would still be interested if it was the most endebted country on Earth (which indcidentally some believe it actually is).

    SF have played an extremely bad hand on this border poll malarkey - you dont pick a fight or an arguement at a time most beneficial to your adversaries. As (gorgeous George Gallers would remark )a basic schoolboy error.

  14. The whole segment got squeezed, and both you and Malachi were rudely pushed off what looked like interesting points of departure. Arlene got loud cheers because she was deliberately playing to the Gallery. And arguably she needed to.

    I've YouTubed it here for those outside the jurisdiction: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvVyavm-Avg

    She absolutely killed Alex with the line "are we going to take the NHS into an all Ireland?". Death by political misadventure is how I'd frame it. There was even a point at which Alex let out a little smile at the ridiculousness of the situation.

    It's a profoundly stupid tactic which should have been sanity checked long before the launch. And one that it in my view is inimical to the cause of Irish unification: http://goo.gl/jURfj.

    The one good thing is that it is so bad that it may have the effect of waking political nationalists up to the need to have a serviceable strategy for bringing the working of the two states closer.

  15. Thanks for thoughts, Mick. I dunno about 'rudely pushed aside' - death by polite dismissal, more like. I also think, as I said on the programme, that the idea of a border poll is a very good idea - IF people are given time (Alex Salmond gave Scotland three years) to think about, discuss and debate WITH OPEN MINDS. What we saw in the Nolan show was the very kind of thing you don't want - people with their minds firmly made up,intent on point-scoring instead of issue exploration. It's time we stopped tossing slogans across the chasm that separates us and tossed (if tossed we must) some relevant facts and rational interpretations.

  16. What will be interesting is how far SF and the SDLP can discuss and promote the concept of a UI whilst acknowledging that Britian may for the forseeable future offer greater economic advantage for the North.

    For many the economic arguement may be secondary, but to persuade enough people to vote for a UI the economic arguement probably needs to be won.

    This is the potential crisis at the heart of Nationalism - which is after all an ideology which grew out of the justifiable (though some may not agree) claim that Ireland would be better off without Brtian and even leaving the current debt crisis aside - SF will realsitically struggle to prove economic benefit from unity.

    It is irrlevant if you are sitting in Northern Ireland whether or not there are savings by merging various adminsitrative functions if you are still better off having the NHS etc which a new Ireland might never be able to afford.

    For SF open the debate now - unless they are able to take the arguement away from relative wealth of Britian and Ireland - is an act of poltical stupidity with the boul Alex probably the first of many embarssed victims.

    SF need to somehow have a convincing debate to show that the reason for 'Ourselves Alone' is about more than the pound/euro in your pocket - far from an easy task.

    Having said all that perhaps Cameron's crazy attempt to appease UKIP might offer SF (as it does the SNP) the chance to present a UI as an opportunity for the North to escape British insurlarity.

    In the meantime expect more embarassment for SF on TV.

  17. Alex Salmond spent thirty years taking what was often viewed by Scots themselves a bunch of ideologically driven barm-pots and turning them into a competent Scottish government. Indeed much of the big argument in Scottish nationalism were settled as far back as the 30s.

    Northern Irish nationalism has only recently settled the argument over physical force. This pushing for a poll you know you are going to lose is a mistake, worse its a transparent piece of displacement activity.

    This is why I was intrigued to hear more from you on northern party culture. In my view have to grow up first. That means taking responsibility in government seriously.

    Investing in special advisors who have some experience or understanding in their minister's field, scoping out territory that allows them to speak and act for to a wider public interest, and draw back on the gaps that have grown between the two jurisdictions since partition.

    The more policy turns into a negotiation process the more the public interest gets crowded out. Salmond did the opposition, and it has allowed him to cut through large swathes of voters who've been won over by the competence of his government.

    The culture has to change. A party that was committed to the long haul would not expect open minds from a broader electorate they continue to take every opportunity to stress and polarise.

    The peace offers nationalism a huge opportunity to start putting its stamp on the future. But it cannot be played the same barrack busting way as the war. You need to take barriers down rather than keep them maintained.

  18. Mick,

    re. "The peace offers nationalism a huge opportunity to start putting its stamp on the future. But it cannot be played the same barrack busting way as the war. You need to take barriers down rather than keep them maintained."

    SF as some smarter Unionists like to remind everybody(to no avail) have lost the war but are winning the peace. If 'taking down barriers' is translated into effectively - backing the British state - in order to put their 'stamp on the future' then SF will find themsleves with a dwindling support from Nationlaists and losing the peace as well.

    SF cannot(and should not) compromise on the flags issue but continue to push pragmatically for reversing 'gaps that have grown between the two jurisdictions since partition.' As you mentioned elsewhere - some things are almost politically impossible.

    The point that Malachi tried to raise from the floor of the studio, that the economics arguement is but an arguement of convenience for deeply held views and is central to the debate for those who are in political parties and those who spend their time on Saturday afternoos talking about politics and many in the Republican and Loyalist heartlands - economics is secondary for (us and) them.

    There is though a distinction between the economic issues of the Northern state as opposed to the economics that puts pounds in Northern pockets and SF amy have allies in both Dublin and Westminster if they can show that bridging that gap between South and North is in both governments financial interest.

    re. Arlene and the NHS - clearly she is not a Life of Brian fan or we might have had a - what have the Romans ever done for us moment for poor Alex to contend with.

    re. Alex. As the outstanding political operator in these parts the referendum will probably be seen as a perhaps fatal but suely his biggest political mistake.

  19. Anybody think that on balance and taking the last couple of decades into account, the Republican leadership probably have a well thought through, detailed argument and strategy sitting ready to go and wouldn't have pushed the border poll otherwise...?

    And all this plodding around seemingly not having a coherent detailed argument for - let's face it - their raison d'etre - is actually a strategic move to waken up grass roots who have largely left "the leadership" to it over the peace process era - any successful campaign will require Republicans to shift up a few gears from the ground up, as the real persuading will be done in the work place, at football matches and over kitchen tables etc...

    It also gets journos/commentators/social media talking, even if it is poking fun at SFs seeming lack of coherence and details - no publicity is bad publicity.

    Perhaps people sometimes cannot see the wood for the trees and over think... I'm probably wrong though :)

  20. Hard to disagree with Mick's views above,Jude.But then perhaps you have a different take on the whole issue.

  21. Is it really worth your while,for the second week in succession to come along to the Nolan show and be cut off when making a reasoned argument? Presume you won't be back in a hurry!

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