Peter Donnelly, Editor
It was a five and a half years like no other, even by Northern Ireland’s unorthodox standards. As with all periods of Northern Ireland’s one hundred year history the period from 2016 was predictably turbulent. Not even the most intuitive or seasoned of Northern Ireland’s weathered political observers could have foreseen the transformation that those years would bring. Arlene Foster, as DUP leader and Northern Ireland First Minister, was the key figure centre-stage of those years. The course which the DUP, without Mrs. Foster, will now pursue is still uncertain – yet it will be conscious of its previous failings.
The news that Arlene Foster had faced an internal leadership coup within the DUP was not a bolt out of the blue. Rublings of discontent within grassroots unionism spilling into loyalist street violence during the Easter period – which was the worst of its kind in Northern Ireland for almost a decade – was a stark sign that unionist diplomacy had failed, and failed utterly.
Attached to the comments sections of profiles of notable hardline unionist figures for the past year were an indication that the position of political unionism was in serious jeopardy. Yet the rapidity and suddenness with which Mrs. Foster’s leadership of the DUP and indeed of Northern Ireland was ended, within the space of 24 hours, was something of a story in and of itself.
Arlene Foster’s tenure as DUP leader and Northern Ireland First Minister was replete with its fair share of “ups and downs,” a point she alluded to during the confirmation of her resignation. Arlene Foster became just the third leader of the DUP. As a young woman and solicitor from the small County Fermanagh border hamlet of Aghadrumsee, hailing from a non-Paisleyite, Church of Ireland tradition, her choice was something of a novelty for the always mundane DUP. However, it was one of her many personal achievements to rise so rapidly to that position with the additional fact that she had been an Ulster Unionist Party politican until 2003.
The Brexit campaign was in its nascent stages when she reached the helm of the DUP, after receiving the baton from her ‘old-guard’ predecessor Peter Robinson. From 2016 and 2017, relations on the hill seemed to be gathering a progressive pace – by Northern Ireland ‘standards’ at least.
The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal would replace that scene of uneasy serenity with calamitous consequences for the region’s political sects proved hughely damaging to the DUP and for Arlene Foster both personally and professionally. As Finance Minister, during the Scheme’s life, she was denounced as being ultimately responsible for delegating its management to the its extravagance and the out of control running costs. However, the scandal characterised the chaotic and pathetic approach to devolved governance more generally, with Mrs. Foster being a single character in the blend. ‘RHI,’ as the scheme became known by its catchy abbreviation and incendiary effects, would be one of the pressure points which enveloped the Stormont class and ultimately trigger its almighty collapse in 2017; marking a three and a half year period of devolution dormancy in regional governance and a virtual freezing of political goodwill.
That political goodwill – if only shortlived – was not to be found not on this side of the Irish Sea but at the heart of the Union in Westminster, when following the then Prime Minister, Theresa May’s disastrous 2018 General Election the DUP entered a Confidence and Supply Agreement with the minority Conservative Government.
This marked the first in a series of, with today’s benefit of hindsight, serious political miscalculations on behalf of the DUP which placed unbridled trust in a Conservative Party whose only ambition was to clench to power at all costs. Boris Johnson, who was backed as the hardline Brexit replacement of Theresa May’s, entered the 2018 DUP Conservative conference on his ticket to ‘Get Brexit Done’ – yet once again the DUP leadership failed to read the small print – ‘Get Brexit Done’ for England first and foremost. And with the result of a ‘double dunter’ for the DUP and unionism – the out-workings which gave rise to the Northern Ireland Protocol and the resulting present fiasco. It is likely that Arlene Foster could readily identify with the sentiments of her kindred political father, Sir Edward Carson, who one hundred years ago, announced his deep feeling of betrayal and regret in placing faith in the Westminster elite,
“What a fool I was! I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into Power.”
It was somewhat inevitable that Arlene Foster would be the ‘fall guy’ for these miscalculations, being at the helm of the DUP. It was clear that the more uncooth elements within the party, a point to which the writer Susan McKay alluded, made the leadership of the DUP particularly difficult for Mrs. Foster.
The DUP’s motley mix of Westminster personalities were particularly uncompromising to create conducive conditions for their leader. Whether it was the racist sentiments expressed by Gregory Campbell MP, the persistent and arguably deliberate failure of Sammy Wilson MP to adhere to the most rudimentary of Covid health and safety measures or the bizarre extravagance of Ian Paisley Jr MP, son of the DUP’s founding father, and his holidaying and connections with foreign governments possessing appalling human rights track records. It was evident that Arlene Foster struggled to lay down the law.
Her frustration was noted by some political commentators, particularly BBC News NI’s political correspondent Enda McClafferty who recalled Mrs. Foster uneasily joke, “Welcome to my world” when asked about the conduct of some of her party members.
Yet in recent weeks her more liberal stance on conversion therapy and her abstaining on a vote in the NI Assembly which would ban the practice outweighs sounded the death knell for her DUP premiership, with the Machiavellian streaks of her detractors rousing themselves to oust her at the earliest and most premature of periods as the country wearily emerges the from Covid pandemic.
The direction in which the DUP now goes is uncertain but it is most certainly electorally-focused as next year is another Assembly election date for the diary.
Edwin Poots is now widely tipped to be the most likely replacement candidae as DUP leader. He was considered to be a contender even before Arlene Foster issued a confirmatory declaration of her intent to resign and true to form he threw his hat into the ring. That gives all observers a broad notion of the path the DUP will trod – towards a more uncompromising outlook which does not bode well for aspirations of settled governance – when such sentiment is in dire need.
It was telling that Mrs. Foster’s resignation speech, on Wednesday afternoon, was laced with not only concillatory language, but something of a warning for her successors whose objective of taking the reigns of power might be to promote political and social regression.
“As I prepare to depart the political stage it is my view that if Northern Ireland is to prosper then it will only do so built on the foundations of successful and durable devolution. That will require continued hard work and real determination and courage on all sides.
“Whilst the focus is on me today I recognise that will pass. For me my decision to enter politics was never about party or person, it was about speaking up for the voiceless and building a Northern Ireland which could prosper and be at peace within the United Kingdom.”
That will be the ultimate challenge for the future DUP leader and First Minister – depending if those roles will follow previous convention and be filled by the same candidate.
On Friday, 30th April, in one of her few public engagements, at a primary school on the Ards Penninsula, since she announced her intention to resign from the DUP leadership at the end of May and as First Minister in June, it was clear that Mrs. Foster was still coming to terms with the internal betrayal of her colleagues. Furthermore it was telling that as she affirmed her intention of leaving the DUP and politics altogether, to graze on pastures new, she said that she had not seen the letter of no confidence which was circulated by her backbencher and party representatives.
Echoes of the way in which Theresa May was treated by the hardline Brexiteer elements of the Conservative Party sound something of a reminiscence with Arlene Foster’s present scenario.
This is indeed a crucial time for Northern Ireland, in its one hundredth year, and a chance to seize the opportunites wasted and dashed by previous political figures of various hues.
Arlene Foster will step down from her positions within the coming weeks and months, yet her words will transcend current and future political storms. A solid combination of effort, willingness, hard work and determination to succeed can be the sole hope of a winning formula in a society with such a troubled and contested past as Northern Ireland’s.