ANALYSIS: Arlene Foster, the Iron Lady of Ulster, is beginning to look rusty

Posted On: 
23rd February 2018

There are few universal truths accepted more unquestioningly, it would seem, by mainland commentators than Arlene Foster's purported political acumen.

Arlene Foster has endured a torrid week as DUP leader.
PA Images

By virtue of the confidence and supply agreement between her Democratic Unionists and the Conservatives, Mrs Foster and her backing cast of perennially ashen-faced MPs are able to present themselves as standing up for Northern Ireland while also making sure that the red, white and blue tinges of Brexit are fresher than the paint on a Belfast kerbstone.

For all the noise made by the party's founder Ian Paisley, never before had it ascended to such precipitous heights of influence on the national and indeed international stage: the spectacle before Christmas of the MLA for Fermanagh dictating the terms of the Brexit negotiations to a supplicant Prime Minister will surely be recorded as one of the more humiliating ordeals for any holder of the office to have to have endured.

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Yet away from their accidental elevation to untrammelled Westminster influence by virtue of Mrs May's electoral mishap, on the home front the armour of Ulster's supposed Iron Lady certainly looks rusty. It would not be extravagant to say that since replacing Peter Robinson as DUP leader and First Minster of Northern Ireland, Foster has led unionism into a profound crisis with the potential to do extreme harm to the cause which she holds so dear.

Inheriting the custodianship of a reasonably buoyant unionism, the momentum continued at the 2016 Assembly elections when Foster oversaw a consolidation of the unionist vote in the face of nationalist and republican atrophy. This resulted in a slew of articles predicting unionism's irresistible advance, expanding on a discourse of previous years which predicted that with stable governance, an increasing number of Catholics would begin to vote unionist, assuring Northern Ireland's place in the union despite demographic change suggesting Catholics would eventually outnumber Protestants. This was even mentioned by Peter Robinson in his first speech to the DUP conference as leader when he said Northern Ireland's place in the UK would only be guaranteed by expanding unionism beyond its traditional base.

Given the snarling chasm that constitutes politics in Northern Ireland today, such talk seems fanciful, even ridiculous. The polarisation that has followed since is largely a crisis of Mrs Foster's own making.

The DUP's feverish support for Brexit - despite the manifest complications it has unleashed on Ireland - when contrasted with nationalism's uniform support for Remain has proven extremely divisive. The war of words between DUP representatives and Leo Varadkar's government mark a low in relations between unionism and Dublin not seen since that erstwhile unionist bogeyman Charles Haughey held sway.

The undoing of inter-Ireland relations has been matched by renewed divisiveness in Ulster. The subsequent collapse of the power-sharing executive has seen Northern Ireland drift without devolved government for over a year, a period in which the DUP have continually parroted that Sinn Fein "pulled down" the Executive rather than any introspection on their part in its demise.

This tin ear was evidenced by Foster throughout the subsequent March 2017 Assembly election, where she displayed an awareness of the nationalist mood her more intransigent political forebears would have admired. Describing Sinn Fein's demands for an Irish Language Act as akin to those of a rapacious crocodile played its part in unionism subsequently losing its Stormont majority for the first time in its history. Given "we have what we hold" is the sine qua non of unionism, it is black mark against Foster's record in the pantheon of unionist leaders.

The subsequently renewed antagonism in politics  has played a part in the rapid slide in public discourse, though it would be remiss to ignore that the antics of a number of Sinn Fein members, notably their now ex-MP Barry McElduff, have fanned the flames.

The collapse of the talks to restore devolution has cast the DUP and its leader in an increasingly shambolic light. This week a leaked document and subsequent disclosures from Sinn Fein appear to suggest that the party was blind-sided as the Government agreed a Troubles legacy deal - one of the most vexatious of issues between the parties - with Sinn Fein without its knowledge, and acquiesced to a form of Irish language legislation. Equally, it has been suggested that should direct rule be introduced, equal marriage legislation for Northern Ireland could be brought through Westminster, a red rag to the evangelical rump which still holds sway in the DUP.  

Though that would create constitutional consequences for the rest of the United Kingdom - the Sewel convention would soon be poured over once again - it would in unionist circles cast Mrs Foster as the leader who oversaw repeated and fundamental retreats on key demands. Indeed, it would also institute a worrying precedent: if a government could disregard unionist views on matters such as these, the potential for them to be thrown onto the altar of Brexit expediency is a real possibility. A Corbyn Downing Street would certainly have no qualms.

Foster left the Ulster Unionists for the DUP due to concerns about David Trimble's stewardship of unionism. Indeed, those who recall the DUP's hounding of Trimble following the compromises of the Good Friday Agreement are no doubt wryly observing the boot being on the other foot this week.

It begins to seem as though under Arlene Foster unionism may have surrendered that thing it enjoys most, control of its own future.