Arlene Foster: There has been a hardening of attitudes in Northern Ireland. But politics is the art of the possible

Posted On: 
15th November 2017

Foster the leader. Foster the king-maker. Foster the devout Christian. Foster the ‘toxic brand’. Arlene Foster says she and her party are misunderstood by a London media and political class out of touch with the realities of Northern Irish politics. Daniel Bond travels to Stormont to meet her

DUP Leader Arlene Foster interviewed at Stormont
Credit: 
Louise Haywood-Schiefer

When Arlene Foster stood outside Number Ten in June and announced that her party had reached a deal with Theresa May to “deliver a stable government”, both leaders hoped it would bring an end to more than a fortnight of upheaval.

It had taken longer than expected. The Queen’s Speech had been delayed as talks dragged on, outraged protesters rallied outside Downing Street and speculation mounted then subsided over a challenge to May’s leadership. 

But an agreement had been reached; a functioning government was secured. May could get on with running the country and, with the statutory deadline for a deal just days away, Foster could focus on restoring devolution at Stormont.

Five months later, it’s not gone to plan. A deal still eludes Foster, and while May is at least in office, it’s increasingly hard to conclude that she’s in power.

The day I meet Foster at Stormont, the place is almost deserted. In the absence of a devolved administration, there is little business to be done here. We wander through the empty Great Hall, past the Chamber and up the stairs towards the dining room, disturbed only by a few schoolchildren on a tour.

‘Another Day, another crisis’, reads the front page of that day’s Telegraph. Three hundred miles away in London, things are a little more lively. Priti Patel has just resigned, Boris Johnson is under growing pressure to do the same, the sexual harassment scandal has brought down one minister and threatens more, Tory MPs are reportedly close to open revolt and Brexit talks are in a critical state.

I ask Foster how she feels watching from a distance as the government her party is keeping in power lurches from disaster to self-inflicted disaster.

“It is a febrile atmosphere over there at the moment,” she says. “I think what Theresa May and her government need to do now is to focus on the big issues of the day. That is why we got into this confidence and supply arrangement – to focus on our exit from the EU, to do that in a positive way, and to bring stability to the nation.”

She thinks back to those difficult 17 days in June, working resolutely towards a deal to secure a parliamentary majority for May amid the shell-shock of the election result, the Corbyn phenomenon, a social media backlash against the DUP and intense press scrutiny. 

It was, she admits, a testing time for the party and for her personally. Newspapers rushed to publish ‘who are the DUP?’ features speculating about their ‘fundamentalist’ views on LGBT and women’s rights, and historical ties to the hard-right. ‘Coalition of Crackpots,’ ran one Mirror splash. Even senior Tories scrambled to distance themselves from their new partners. Heidi Allen said in the Chamber that she could “barely put into words” her “anger” at the deal. Sitting ministers, including Chris Grayling, said they “fundamentally disagreed” with many of the DUP’s views. Lord Patten called the party a “toxic brand”.

If, through all that, the DUP could keep their eyes fixed on the prize – May in Number Ten, Corbyn out, and a stable Brexit negotiating position – then the Prime Minister can do the same now, Foster believes.

“It’s so important that she focuses on the big issues and doesn’t get thrown off,” she says. “I know that’s very difficult when there is so much noise going on, but that’s exactly what she must do. It’s what we did in June and July when we got the confidence and supply arrangement, despite the fact that we were being lambasted as the most extreme party that had ever been thought of. It’s about focusing.” 

Foster still bristles with irritation as she thinks back to the reaction to the DUP-Tory deal, and blames the London media for painting a picture of her party based, she says, on half-truths and out of context quotes.

“We were completely misrepresented, there’s no doubt about it. All of these mad allegations about who we were and what we were,” she recalls.

“What we had to do was remain focused on what we were trying to do with the confidence and supply agreement, and not become distracted by what was frankly quite offensive at times from the mainland media. 

“Some of them were saying that we were Loyalist terrorists and all this sort of thing. I mean, my goodness, my father was shot by terrorists, it’s hardly something that I’m going to be supporting. For a party that was founded on law and order it was an incredible allegation to make.

“But you could spend your time rebutting every single one of those allegations, or you could actually get on and do the job. That’s what we decided to do."

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On the 4th of January 1979 John Kelly, a police officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was tending to the livestock on his family’s County Fermanagh farm when an IRA gunman shot him in the head. An eight year-old Arlene Foster was in the kitchen when her father crawled in, trailing blood. Kelly shepherded his family to safety and survived the attack, but they were forced to leave their farm and move to the nearby town of Lisnaskea.

At 16, Foster was involved in another terrorist attack. Her school bus – carrying Catholic and Protestant children – was the target of an IRA bomb intended to assassinate the driver, a part-time Ulster Defence Regiment soldier. Foster was unhurt, but the girl sitting next to her was seriously injured. Speaking to the BBC after the blast, a teenage Foster said it was “up to the whole of the young people of Northern Ireland to change what is happening, to turn against the men of violence”.

When she rose up the ranks of Northern Irish politics in the late 2000s, Foster’s story inevitably gained attention worldwide. Here was a potential leader who knew from bitter personal experience what can happen when the democratic process breaks down, and when ‘men of violence’ are given political cover for acts of cowardice.

In her inaugural speech as First Minister in January 2016, she shared her vision for making Northern Ireland “a beacon to the world”, that shows what can be achieved when “political opponents and old enemies” work together. “I want to do all of that,” she added, “not in spite of my own past, but because of it.”

Next April will mark 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement brought the Troubles to an end, and it is now over a decade since Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness shocked the world by agreeing a power-sharing arrangement that re-established devolved government at Stormont.

Yet Northern Ireland is enduring its longest period without an executive since that historic deal.   

“There has been, I think it’s fair to say, a hardening of attitudes within both communities,” Foster says when I ask how she feels the politics of Northern Ireland has developed since she came into office less than two years ago.

For this ‘hardening’, she unsurprisingly blames Sinn Féin and its decision in January this year to collapse the executive and force an early election. “Instead of trying to work through the difficulties we had at that moment, Sinn Féin pulled the whole edifice down,” she says.

Sinn Féin points the finger of blame for that outcome purely at Foster, and her refusal to step aside pending an inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). Dubbed ‘Cash for Ash’, the scandal centres around a green energy scheme, overseen by Foster during her time as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, which ran into problems when costs spiralled out of control. The scandal continues to play out alongside talks on forming a new administration; an inquiry is now underway in the old Senate chamber, just a few yards away from where we stop to take photos with Foster in Stormont’s Great Hall. 

Whoever’s spin you believe, the last administration was brought to an end and a bitter election campaign followed, in which Sinn Féin seriously challenged the DUP in the fight to be the largest party. In the event, it finished just one seat behind, but Unionism lost its majority in the Assembly for the first time.

“We had a very ill-tempered Assembly election campaign, which was very, very tough,” Foster says. “I think a lot of Unionists were very shocked that Sinn Féin had come so close to being the largest party. It was an ‘oh my goodness’ wake-up call feeling.”

When she first entered office back in January 2016, Foster claimed that support for the Union was “growing in every area of Northern Ireland”. Does she still think that’s the case?

“What I was talking about there is that there was no push in terms of a united Ireland,” she says. “There were a lot of Nationalists that, while they had the aspiration for a united Ireland, were quite comfortable in the Union economically, they had a good standard of living, their children were going to nice schools, and culturally they felt comfortable because they could express their culture here in Northern Ireland in a way that they were free to do.”

But Brexit, she admits, has forced people in both communities to “stop to think”. “It’s certainly given them [Sinn Féin] something to campaign on. Which is slightly bizarre given that they didn’t register to campaign in the referendum against Brexit and were very quiet during the campaign. Then they became big Europeans overnight.”

She rejects the idea that the Union is under threat because of Brexit, and says she has no doubt the people of Northern Ireland would vote to remain in the UK if there was a Border Poll.

But she knows all too well how difficult it will be to find a settlement on Brexit that keeps both communities happy – all the more reason, she says, to get Stormont up and running and ensure Northern Ireland has a voice. “We need to have an executive here to speak for Northern Ireland on Brexit,” she says. “There are things we’ll disagree on with Brexit, but in terms of getting the best deal for Northern Ireland I hope we can work together to ensure that happens.”

The UK snap election, called just weeks after the Stormont vote, immediately gave DUP supporters an outlet to express their fears about the future of the Union, she says. And they did – the party’s vote share shot up by more than 10pts on 2015. Sinn Féin also increased their vote, and picked up three more seats. Every other major party’s vote decreased, and the traditionally moderate SDLP and UUP lost all representation. Sylvia Herman, the independent MP for North Down, remains as a sole speck of grey on an electoral map otherwise entirely conquered by the green of Sinn Féin and the red of Foster’s DUP.

It was hoped that the result, and the pact with the Tories that followed, would allow both sides to draw a line under a turbulent few months and give added impetus to the talks to get a Stormont executive up and running.

But a deal remains out of reach. The latest round of talks broke down without an agreement at the beginning of this month, and Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire last week rushed emergency legislation through the both Houses to allow the UK government to pass a budget for Northern Ireland.

Sinn Féin blames the breakdown on a lack of progress on an Irish Language Act and on same-sex marriage. These difficulties are “compounded”, it says, by the DUP’s confidence and supply arrangement with the Conservatives.

The DUP’s leader in Westminster, Nigel Dodds, responded to the latest breakdown in talks by calling for Brokenshire to impose direct rule from London – including the appointment of ministers – “within a few short weeks” if no agreement is reached, and said the people of Northern Ireland could not wait “until Sinn Féin come to their senses”.

But Foster strikes a different tone to her colleague. She says she believes Sinn Féin are serious about devolution, and says talks must be given time to work.

“I get the sense that they do want devolution – but of course they want it on their terms. What we need to ensure is that when devolution comes back everybody is comfortable with it,” she says.

“Sinn Féin have a list of things that they say have to be satisfied before they come back into devolution. We have to strike a deal that is not one sided. It has to be a deal that is acceptable to Unionism and Nationalism, and therein lies the trick of finding a shared space where Nationalism feels that they’re respected and accommodated but at the same time the majority community here don’t feel that their rights are being infringed.

“Do I think there will be devolution back? Yes I do. But it involves people compromising and bringing their own people to a place where they feel comfortable, and that sometimes takes a little longer.”

It’s clear she wants to be back in office as First Minister, and she admits to finding the negotiations – and her inability to get anything done in the meantime – “hugely frustrating” on a personal level. But to get back to work she knows she must find a way to satisfy Sinn Féin’s demands while keeping her own party on side.

“People want to see the institutions up and running again, they want to see devolution, they want to see us back governing Northern Ireland. But they don’t want us to give in,” she says. “So you have that sort of tension there all of the time. And it’s trying to find a way around that. But if politics is the art of the possible, then we must surely find a way to get round all of that.”

She looks back with a sense of pride at what Northern Ireland achieved in 2007, and in 2010 when policing and justice powers were devolved. They were “very ,very difficult times”, she says, but both sides were able to dig deep, “bring people along with us and show this is a better way”. 

In a message seemingly designed to appeal to her own party as much as the other side, she continues: “Every negotiation that we get ourselves into is always different but it’s always very difficult, and there comes a point when you have to say ‘right, we believe this is as best as we can do, now’s the time to move on and to try and bring our people with us’.

“So there will come a point hopefully when we will be able to bring something to our electorate and say we believe this is the best deal: ‘If we want a shared society in Northern Ireland, this is the best deal that we can bring to you.’ That will then allow us to get on with the day job of making Northern Ireland a very strong regional economy that can work post-Brexit.

“If we have a strong economy, and we are able to raise the levels of productivity here, then that will work for everybody in Northern Ireland, whether you’re a Nationalist or a Unionist. Then we can get on with making this place somewhere that everybody can be very proud of.”

The main hurdle for Foster is securing a guarantee that Sinn Féin won’t simply bank any concessions and conspire to bring the institution down again before the five-year term is up. “The sustainability of this place is vitally important, we have to look at that for the future,” she says. “People are saying ‘they brought the place down, they shouldn’t be rewarded for bringing the place down’. What’s to stop Sinn Féin doing exactly the same in six months’ time? In a year’s time? That has to be part of what we’re talking about at the moment.”

Another development that would change the situation on the ground dramatically would be a second general election, and a Jeremy Corbyn government. It’s a turn of events that looks increasingly plausible amid this government’s perpetual crisis.  

But while it’s an outcome Foster would find unpalatable, it’s one she says Sinn Féin would “most definitely” welcome. “They’re very friendly with him [Corbyn]”.

Could that derail talks on power-sharing at Stormont? “Oh I think it would, because he’s very clearly not neutral in relation to these issues,” she says. “Despite the fact that we have a confidence and supply arrangement with the Conservative party, they have – in terms of the Northern Ireland Office – gone out of their way to be neutral in their dealings here in Northern Ireland. Even though some would say otherwise, that has absolutely been the case and I think it has been shown to be the case.

“You would not have that with a Jeremy Corbyn Northern Ireland Office. He would be very clearly partisan towards Republicanism.

“It would be disastrous for Northern Ireland, because of his previous utterances in relation to Northern Ireland, and his support for the IRA at a time when nobody else was supporting the IRA.”

Foster rules out ever doing a deal with Labour under Corbyn – but says she could work with the party under a different leadership.

“In the past we have spoken to the Labour party about agreements. It’s not as if we have said it would always be the Conservative party we would support,” she says. “But for us the choice is very clear when the Labour party have a leader and a shadow chancellor and other members who are so clearly advocating a particular direction, a direction which we think would be wrong for the nation.”

But she adds that she regards a lot of the instability of recent weeks as “media driven”, and calls for “a sense a perspective”. “I don’t see Jeremy Corbyn becoming the prime minister very soon.”

“I hope not,” she laughs. “For the good of us, and for the good of the nation.”

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The DUP has moved on since the 1970s, when it led a campaign against the decriminalisation of homosexuality under the banner ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’. In the second half of Ian Paisley’s decades-long leadership, the party underwent a slow but remarkable change from a small band of followers of the Free Presbyterian Church to a pragmatic and modern electoral machine, a process that culminated in the decision in 2007 to enter into the power-sharing agreement with Sinn Féin.   

Foster’s rise to the leadership signalled a further ideological shift. Unlike her predecessors, she is a member of the Church of Ireland, and spent her formative political years in the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party, before switching to the DUP in 2004.

Now, as the party prepares for its first conference since the confidence and supply arrangement, it is on the cusp of another major change. “This has given us an unprecedented opportunity to have a presence on the national scene,” Foster says. “I think we have to take that opportunity and we have to use it for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland.”

But the party’s record on social issues is one its detractors are unlikely to forget. Much of the hostility to the DUP deal centred around the party’s stance on abortion – it opposes it in any instance, except where the mother’s life is in serious danger, even in cases of rape – and its continued opposition to same-sex marriage.

Foster has always stood by those views, and says the party’s critics in England should accept that they reflect the expressed will of the people of Northern Ireland. “Here in Northern Ireland our views certainly are mainstream. We’re the largest party, people vote for us because of our views. And I think that needs to be acknowledged and recognised in parts of England and in the mainland,” she says.

But she adds that much of the anger directed at the DUP stems from misunderstanding, and a lack of knowledge about the journey they’ve been on. “The difficulty with googling people is that you come across all sorts of so called facts about them that may not be strictly correct, and some of them may be very historical facts as well. People were googling the DUP and finding things that had been said in 1974 and then forming their judgement of the party on that basis.”

She says the party, too, must take responsibility for its failure to deliver a clearer message on the mainland. “There was a misunderstanding because people didn’t know. And we have to ask the question why is that the case? Do we bear some responsibility for that?” she says.

“Here we are the largest party in Northern Ireland, the largest Unionist party. And unlike Scotland people don’t know who we are and they don’t know what we stand for, and they’re taking a look at us through historical lenses.”

Much like the SNP, Foster suggests that we could see the DUP flexing its muscles in national as well as regional politics. “I think it’s important that we talk about who are we, what we believe in,” she says. “People need to look objectively at what we’re saying and doing. But it’s a two-way street. From our perspective, we now need to make ourselves more relevant on the national scene.”

She adds that, since the deal with the Tories, supporters and sympathisers from across the UK have got in touch to say “we agree with your manifesto, we think it’s good what you’re saying”.

In fact, she jokes, we could one day see an elected DUP presence on this side of the Irish Sea. “We’ve even had people offering to stand for us in England… But we haven’t gone that far yet.”

A year that began with the collapse of her government and her leadership on life support, ends with Arlene Foster heading to her party’s conference as one of the most powerful figures in UK politics.

But the inquiry into RHI is underway, instability at Westminster looks certain to continue, Northern Ireland’s status after Brexit remains a circle to be squared, and the wait for a deal at Stormont goes on. 

Foster’s political story is a remarkable one, and it’s just beginning.