Foster’s recent performances unnerving the party faithful

Posted By: March 05, 2018

IT’S little over two years since Arlene Foster succeeded Peter Robinson, but with Stormont unlikely to return anytime soon, Political Correspondent John Manley ponders what the future may hold for the DUP leader

DUP leader Arlene Foster pictured during a visit to Westminster last month. 

Picture by Yui Mok/PA Wire
John Manley. Irish News. Belfast. Monday, March 5, 2018

NEARLY three weeks have passed since Arlene Foster collapsed the latest Stormont talks and since then the DUP leader has raised her head above the parapet just once, for a pre-recorded interview with UTV at the beginning of last week. This is not an approach you tend to adopt when in a position of strength.

She appears reluctant to have her role in the failed negotiations publicly dissected, and other senior party figures have been drafted in to defend the DUP position on her behalf – often with embarrassing consequences.

Details that have emerged since the abrupt end to the talks on St. Valentine’s Day support the notion that Mrs. Foster and her negotiating team were out on a limb and were considering, or even preparing to sign up to an Irish language act – a move she categorically ruled out in the past.

It’s argued that the DUP talks team became cocooned from the party’s rank and file as they pushed eagerly for a return to devolution and Mrs. Foster’s reinstatement as Stormont’s First Minister.

Even though the consensus suggests, the so-called accommodation was a poor deal for Republicans, the level of resistance from within the DUP and broader unionism to what was in the proposals appear to have surprised Mrs. Foster and her advisors.

Since the talks collapsed, the Fermanagh-South Tyrone MLA has met the DUP’s ruling executive, and she says they have backed her leadership. Arguably that confidence is justified – Mrs. Foster offset a Sinn Féin surge in last year’s assembly elections with her party’s strongest ever Westminster result.

However, with the return of the executive looking unlikely anytime soon, questions are bound to be asked about Mrs. Foster’s relevance in her role as a “leader without an office.”

In December, University of Liverpool academic Jon Tonge characterized the former first minister as having “responsibility without power,” given that her party’s focus was shifting from Stormont to Westminster and that she was increasingly being eclipsed by her deputy Nigel Dodds.

That was in the wake of the DUP rejecting a reported deal on the border between the EU and the British government.

The author of DUP: From Protest to Power said: “Mrs. Foster is in the car, but it’s being driven by Nigel Dodds.”

If anything, the situation for the DUP leader has only deteriorated since and the low profile Mrs. Foster has adopted over the past couple of weeks is likely to become the norm – at least until her much-anticipated appearance at the RHI inquiry.

To date, the former minister for enterprise, trade, and investment has yet to be directly criticised in the public inquiry into the botched scheme that she launched and oversaw.

Since oral hearings began in November, it is failings of under-resourced civil servants rather than the minister and her special advisers that have been highlighted.

This could all change, however, when Mrs. Foster and other political figures are called to give evidence some time after Easter.

Renowned for her tetchiness and unaccustomed to being directly challenged, the DUP leader will surely find the inquiry and accompany public glare an uncomfortable experience.

There’s also the possibility that embarrassing evidence may emerge about her oversight of the RHI scheme.

There is nobody waiting eagerly in the wings to succeed Mrs. Foster, and a heave against her may be some time coming, yet for someone who initially appeared to promise so much, her leadership has been dogged by bad press and allegations of poor judgment.

Not only has the party’s unwavering support for Brexit and its reluctance to embrace any form of compromise alienated “small u” unionists, but the DUP leader’s recent performance has also unnerved her previously faithful hardline followers.

Politics is notoriously unforgiving, and while the current rhetoric suggests otherwise, the DUP may be looking for a new leader sooner than they think.