ANALYSIS: DUP's disappointing election night means it's time for Arlene Foster to go

Posted On: 
14th December 2019

The DUP's retreat at the general election should hasten the demise of party leader Arlene Foster, writes Andrew McQuillan.

Nigel Dodds lost his seat at the general election.
Credit: 
PA Images

Sangfroid is not something commonly associated with Ulster unionist politicians, particularly those from the DUP stable. After her party lost two seats, failed to win one they had coveted for years and more symbolically surrendered unionism’s near century-old domination of Northern Ireland’s representation at Westminster, Arlene Foster did not change the habit of a lifetime.

Met with the suggestion that this confluence of factors posed questions about her leadership of the party, she dismissed it with the sort of flourish her predecessor, the late Ian Paisley, reserved for blasphemers and apostates.

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Election night was a horrendous evening for the DUP and unionism more broadly, but the rush to suggest that a united Ireland is a sure thing is somewhat wide of the mark. Unionism still retained the overall majority of the vote share, Sinn Fein’s share of the vote plummeted more than any other Northern Irish party while the boon in support for the cross-community Alliance Party – who denied the DUP the golden egg of North Down – suggests that for an increasing chunk of the electorate, a failing health service and other creaking public services are more important than flags and anthems.

However, despite this largely unsighted nuance, this is simply the latest addition to a burgeoning charge sheet of setbacks which have befallen unionism since Mrs Foster became leader of the DUP. Unionist leaders throughout the sands of time have been ousted for much less.

The botched handling of the party’s unprecedented and unlikely-to-be-repeated influence at Westminster stands out and is the root of the current predicament. Seemingly more interested in engaging in ritual humiliation of Theresa May over the Brexit backstop, the party passed up the opportunity for a UK-wide customs union and regulatory alignment for photo opportunities on the Commons terrace with Arron Banks.

Now they have been furnished with the dreaded “border down the sea” and are powerless to stop it. Unionists and loyalists who felt compelled to rally round candidates like Nigel Dodds at the election are now likely to be in the mood for recrimination over such a monumental folly. It is not for nothing that Mike Nesbitt, the cerebral former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, described Brexit as unionism’s biggest own goal and something which could presage the end of the UK.

Rudderless and diminished at Westminster, on the home front the party is still faced with the tumbleweed assembly at Stormont. The symbiotic culture war the party has engaged in with Sinn Fein - who it must be stressed are also not blameless for the current devolution deadlock – has contributed to a profound poisoning of the well of political discourse in Northern Ireland. It is in the party’s interests to get Stormont working again given developments at Westminster, but it is unlikely that Mrs Foster – she who equated compromise with Sinn Fein to feeding a ravenous crocodile – possess the political magnanimity to play her part in facilitating devolution’s return.

Attempting to rationalise her party’s performance, Foster blamed the failure of Nigel Dodds and Emma Pengelly to retain their seats on nationalist and Remainer conspiracy rather than unionist cock-up. The hypocrisy of the SDLP feeling that abstentionism is acceptable for Belfast North but not Foyle is evident, but the response is a damning indictment of the lack of contrition and reflection which characterises the DUP’s approach under her leadership. Instead of seeking to understand why unionism has regressed, Foster seems content to foist the blame on the machinations of “themmuns” in the other camp.

This moment of reckoning has been coming since the party also presided over the loss of unionist hegemony at Stormont in 2017. The immediate response to this latest electoral setback suggests that under Arlene Foster, the DUP has no cogent strategy as to how to claw back what it has lost. For a party which is inherently survivalist in nature and outlook, such continual slide cannot be tolerated.

The DUP has been swift to dispense with its leaders when they have outlasted their usefulness; even Ian Paisley himself was not spared when the time came. With the impending publication of the report into the Renewable Heating Initiative which accelerated this spiral – with the inquiry being yet another example of Foster’s diffidence – such an opportunity to exit stage left could present itself.

Her eventual successor is faced with that favoured Ulster political metaphor of a crossroads; accept the changing demographic, social and political context in which unionism is operating and modernise accordingly to ensure that when a referendum comes, unionism stands ready to win or continue down a path of ever diminishing turns. With Northern Ireland’s centenary approaching in 2021, unionism’s current leadership seem hellbent on ensuring that any bicentenary celebrations are nothing more than a pipedream.

* Andrew McQuillan works in public affairs and writes extensively on Northern Ireland