Fear and loathing do Foster no favours

Posted By: March 11, 2016

Alex Kane. Irish News (Belfast). March 11, 2016

I can understand why the DUP is feeling a little spooked at the moment. The electorate delivered unexpected victory to David Cameron last year, resurrected Fianna Fáil two weeks ago, delivered a series of surprising outcomes across the world since 2013 and has been rewarding mavericks from both the left and right.

A couple of years ago the DUP would have dismissed the chances of a ‘comeback election’ for the UUP—now they’re not so sure. Nor can they take it for granted that the TUV, PUP, UKIP and maybe even Ruth Patterson in South Belfast won’t snatch a few seats between them.

And because they’re spooked its no surprise that Arlene Foster has decided to launch the DUP’s own version of ‘project fear’. She began by warning that “Sinn Féin’s real agenda in the May election is to shred and split unionist votes”. That, of course, is nonsense. The only people who can shred and split the unionist vote are unionist voters, parties and candidates. In South Belfast, for example, six pro-Union parties and eight candidates will be fighting for two seats: which means that Alliance has an outside chance of picking up a second seat. It seems hardly fair to blame Sinn Féin for that sort of intra-Unionist knockabout.

I think Foster is also on slightly shaky ground when she says: “At the heart of this election is an important choice for the community. 108 MLAs will be elected but in reality the next first minister will either be me or Martin McGuinness. Your vote will decide. It’s that simple. But if you think it is difficult now just imagine what it would be like with a Sinn Féin first minister and the executive dominated by republicans. That’s why we must stand our ground and fight for every vote.” But the reality, as well she knows, is that neither she nor McGuinness can pass wind without a nod of approval from the other. The first and deputy first ministers are joined at the hip.

Summing up the DUP’s campaign for the 2011 assembly election I wrote: “They looked and sounded confident all the way through the campaign and were helped by what I have previously described as the softly spoken psychological impact that Martin McGuinness as possible first minister was having on unionist voters.” That campaign produced the DUP’s best ever assembly result, so I suppose it makes sense to return to old tactics, albeit under a new leader. Yet playing the fear card when you know the outcome must be a mandatory coalition strikes me as predictable and unambitious.

What I’d like to hear her talk about are the differences between the DUP and other unionist parties. I’d like to hear her talk about how she plans to work with Sinn Féin between now and 2021. I’d like to hear her set out any areas of agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin and explain how they plan to deliver them. I’d like to hear a joint response from Foster and McGuinness on socio/economic problems they both know require resolution. I’d like to hear them explain how they intend to avoid the pitfalls and serial crises which have been the fixed point of their relationship since May 2007. I’d like to hear her focus on the positive dimensions of the DUP/SF relationship rather than merely stir the pot and scare the grassroots.

She could also challenge Mike Nesbitt, Jim Allister, David McNarry and Billy Hutchinson about what they would do differently if the electorate put them in her shoes on May 5. The criticisms of the DUP/SF relationship are valid, but I’m not hearing the UUP set out

how a Nesbitt/McGuinness relationship would lead to a better relationship than what exists now. Indeed, we’re still waiting for the UUP to explain how it would even return to the executive if the problems which led to the walkout last August haven’t been resolved. And I’m pretty sure Jim Allister wouldn’t enter government with Sinn Féin if the TUV emerged as the largest party of unionism.

Foster is on stronger ground than she thinks. The other leaders of unionism can land blows on her, but they also need to provide the answers to the criticisms they make: and, so far, those answers are not obvious. It would take something seismic to blow her out of the first minister’s office at this point, so she needs to stop behaving as if there’s an electoral disaster waiting to happen.

The electorate doesn’t need fear and loathing at the heart of the DUP’s campaign – nor Sinn Féin’s for that matter. They need to hear confidence. They need to believe that progress is possible. They need to know that things will be better and different under Foster. She’s liked across unionism: she needs to play to that particular strength.