Arlene Foster responsible for the worst Unionist result in my lifetime
Posted By: March 07, 2017
“But Foster’s scale of political catastrophe was worse. Her petulant disregard for others resulted in an election that many of her MLAs didn’t want. Her inability to accept personal responsibility for the RHI fiasco (it centered on a department run by successive DUP ministers) was to be her undoing. Ian Paisley would not have allowed it to get this far. Peter Robinson wouldn’t have allowed it to get this far. She had a number of opportunities between December 6, 2016 and January 16, 2017 to find a solution that stopped short of an election; yet took none of them.”
Alex Kane. News Letter. Belfast. Monday, March 6, 2017
So, the DUP’s relentlessly negative, uninspiring, lacking-in-vision, ‘be afraid’ campaign saw Unionism reduced to a minority in the Assembly; just four years before Northern Ireland’s centenary.
They may trumpet the fact that they “added 22,846 votes to our 2016 tally”; but ignore the more damaging facts that Sinn Fein added 57,460; Alliance added 24,270, and the UUP/SDLP added 28,596.
This is Arlene Foster’s fault. She is responsible for the worst political/electoral result for Unionism in my lifetime: indeed, the biggest collective shock to Unionism since the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. Had this happened when David Trimble was the leader of the UUP – and had she still been a member – she would have been organizing the villagers and handing out the pitchforks and flaming torches.
What will she do, now? Well, once the shock wears off, we’ll have some idea. Her party colleagues and DUP core vote will also have to get used to the shock. The shock that the seat gap between them and Sinn Fein is down from 10 to just one.
The shock that the vote gap between them is down from around 36,000 to just 1,200. The shock that there are just 40 unionist seats out of 90. The shock that having made Gerry Adams the focal point of her campaign she has, to all intents and purposes, given him his own mandate here. The fact that out of around 135,000 more voters coming out, the DUP only attracted 22,846 of them. And no matter how hard the DUP leadership will try to spin Thursday as some sort of success, they really will be aware of how bad a day they had.
Mike Nesbitt, to his credit, did the right thing: and did it immediately. He had no choice. His colleagues were toppling one after another. He hadn’t polled enough to secure the return of his running mate in Strangford (and he, himself, was outpolled by the Alliance candidate). He knew – indeed, he had known it for two weeks – that he had damaged their chances in his interview with Mark Carruthers. Harold McKee, the defeated candidate in South Down, delivered the coup de grâce an hour before the resignation: “When I went to the doors I had to tell people it was me who was standing and not Mike Nesbitt.”
But Foster’s scale of political catastrophe was worse. Her petulant disregard for others resulted in an election that many of her MLAs didn’t want. Her inability to accept personal responsibility for the RHI fiasco (it centered on a department run by successive DUP ministers) was to be her undoing. Ian Paisley would not have allowed it to get this far. Peter Robinson wouldn’t have allowed it to get this far. She had a number of opportunities between December 6, 2016, and January 16, 2017, to find a solution that stopped short of an election; yet took none of them.
A couple of weeks ago I noted, in the News Letter, that I still expected the DUP to re-emerge as the largest party. But I also flagged up a potentially “catastrophic scenario” for her: Unionists losing their overall majority in the Assembly (a huge psychological blow); the DUP being outpolled by Sinn Fein (another huge blow); and the DUP dropping below 30 (and losing the right to deploy the petition of concern on their own). Well, two out of the three have happened, and the lead over Sinn Fein is a mere 0.2%. She is still standing: but she’s only standing because she is clinging to the ropes.
Quite how steady those ropes are is uncertain. Gavin Robinson failed to give her a ringing endorsement in an interview with Stephen Nolan on Saturday evening. Another senior DUP source contacted the show and accused her of playing a significant part in misjudging Unionism. A newly-elected DUP MLA told me on Friday evening: “This is a dreadful night. She should never have put us through this. This election could have been and should have been avoided.”
At this point, I’m not sure if she will survive. I think the DUP will be reluctant to toss her to the wolves: if only because that might look like they were trying to assuage Sinn Fein. But, if she offered to fall on her sword, there may be a general willingness to let her. Sammy Wilson has argued that no other party would expect the resignation of a leader who had won an election: but since her “victory” appears to be of the Pyrrhic variety, I’m not sure that his argument stands up (without the help of the same ropes that are keeping her upright).
Regular readers will be aware that I don’t like Unionist campaigns focused on Sinn Fein bogeymen. You can say what you like about Sinn Fein – and I’ve done my share of saying it – but at least they have a coherent vision, agenda, and game plan. So why can’t the DUP try that, for a change? Why can’t they promote a vision of Unionism that goes beyond pointing at Gerry Adams and repeating the Repetitive Humbug Inanity (the electoral equivalent of RHI) of “Be Afraid? Be Very Afraid”? I’ve never been afraid of Adams, McGuinness, Sinn Fein or even the IRA: and I’m not going to start now.
There are now huge challenges for the DUP, the UUP (leaderless and bewildered) and the TUV and PUP (which saw their vote fall). It’s a challenge I’ve asked them to rise to for years. And please, please, let’s not return to “United We Stand, Divided We Fall” musketeer Unionism. Is it really too much to believe that we can swap scaredy-cat, insular, wagon-circling Unionism for a broad-based, inclusive, equality-recognizing Unionism? Meanwhile, the DUP needs to stop blaming others and, instead, accept that the latest scare campaign backfired. As will others.