Can Arlene Foster reinvent herself and show she’s very different to the image that has now taken hold?

Posted By: March 07, 2017

By David Gordon.Belfast Telegraph. Tuesday, March 7, 2017

As Arlene Foster and the DUP survey their post-election surroundings, they may perhaps find some wisdom in the finely-honed words of Bono and U2.

‘You’ve got to get yourself together,

You’ve got stuck in a moment,

And now you can’t get out of it.’

Those who imagined the DUP leader would meekly walk away after a damaging election doesn’t know the party.

It sorts out its problems behind closed doors and doesn’t tend to be rushed.

It prides itself on being a family – although family rows can, of course, be among the most vicious.

There has been a public rallying behind the leader and a pretty widespread view among colleagues that she has been “harshly treated” – to quote Peter Robinson last week.

There are loud mutterings from some quarters, though. Some of the DUP sources taking aim will be partly about settling old scores; not least getting revenge on some powerful backroom consiglieres.

But there will also be understandable concern within the ranks at the election losses.

It could certainly have been worse, but Mike Nesbitt played his part in helping the DUP avoid heavier casualties. What would have happened if he hadn’t uttered that sentence about giving the SDLP his second preference?

It also shouldn’t be assumed that all those who voted DUP were necessarily diehard DUP and Arlene fans.

The election is over, but the central story for many is still whether or not Foster should step aside. Is digging in the best way to respond?

The challenge now for the DUP is to get out of that moment, to change the story.

It also has a duty to take its leader out of the firing line, for her sake as well as for the party’s.

Is there a way to do that without “regime change”?

There is hardly an array of ready-made alternative leaders waiting in the Assembly team. Can she defy the political laws of gravity, survive and lead the party to future successes? Peter Robinson managed to do that for years, but it took its toll.

Can Foster reinvent herself, demonstrate that there’s much more to her as a person and a politician than that snap about feeding crocodiles?

People who know her will tell you she’s a very different person to the image that has now taken hold – more engaging, much warmer.

Perceptions matter, though, and changing them is not easy in public life.

There is an awful lot for the DUP and Unionism to be thinking about right now.

We are now into the talks process game once again.

The number one rule of this game doesn’t get blamed for a talks failure. Pin it on the other side.

“We worked night and day to make this process work, did our very best to reach an agreement. Sadly, intransigence on the other side of the table has made that impossible. No one is more disappointed than us.”

Here’s the problem for the DUP. If Foster refusing to budge is the main story, that’s where the blame for stalemate will generally be placed.

Then there are the longer-term challenges of an Assembly without a Unionist majority.

It can be argued that this is merely a symbolic change, which doesn’t actually alter any constitutional realities. But the same could have been said about the Union flag coming down over Belfast City Hall a few years ago.

The long-term significance of the changed Assembly will depend on in part on how Unionism responds.

There will inevitably be some circling of the wagons in the next few years – talk of Unionist unity and a big push to get their vote out next time.

However, that will only achieve so much.

Infuriating Nationalist and Republican voters has consequences for Unionism. That’s a central lesson of the 2017 crocodile election.

Giving sulky Jose Mourinho-style interviews after bad results is not a good look either.

The DUP and wider Unionism must worry, too, about a disconnect with the younger generation on social issues.

Has anyone ever explained why politicians opposing gay marriage here are so concentrated on the Unionist benches?

The simple fact is that the DUP is not going to alter its position on same-sex marriage. Even if it wanted to, such a move would cause an immediate party implosion.

So what does it do? Its conservative stance on social issues means it is seen by many younger voters as the “nasty party.” That’s increasingly toxic for any political brand.

Then there are rolling after-shocks from the Brexit bombshell. The United Kingdom is not looking so united any more and is going to be a changed place.

Not every Unionist voter thinks it is changing for the better. Nationalist antagonism to the Union, meanwhile, is likely to intensify.

Very little is certain in politics, wherever you look. Everything is “fluxed up.”

This feels like a potentially defining moment for unionism and the DUP.

Can they take the sage advice of Bono and get themselves together?