Legacy of North’s first female leader will be as woman who put union in peril
Posted By: April 05, 2017
When Arlene Foster stepped into Peter Robinson’s shoes in December 2015, it was hailed a progressive move for women’s rights and potentially a more socially tolerant DUP.
Here was a former member of the Ulster Unionist Party, who did not come from the Free Presbyterian background of the DUP’s founding fathers, taking the top job in a party once dominated by bible thumping middle-aged men.
Her ability to rise through the ranks in a patriarchal – and at times misogynist – political world was undoubtedly admirable.
Who can forget the comments by party colleague Edwin Poots on what was considered the most momentous day of her political career as she was appointed First Minister when he remarked her “most important job” remained “that of a wife, mother and daughter.”
She brushed those remarks off, and with a steely backbone and a hint of Margaret Thatcher about her, positioned herself a woman not be messed with, a serious political contender with an ability to stand up to the party’s many critics.
During the 2016 Assembly election, she was marketed as the DUPs greatest asset and ran a presidential-style campaign with her face appearing on all of the party’s election literature.
With the late Martin McGuinness cast in the role of the Republican bogeyman, vote Arlene or get a former IRA man as First Minister, resonated with the Unionist electorate and she was returned with a clear majority retaining an impressive 38 seats.
Optimism that a female leader was going to herald a new era for gender equality was quickly dispelled as it was clear Mrs. Foster’s views on reproductive rights and same-sex marriage were firmly to the right.
While disappointing for anyone who mistakenly believed a female leader would be more progressive, those who voted for the DUP knew exactly were the party stood on social issues and therefore, she was in their eyes being a woman of her word.
However, few could have predicted the downward trajectory her leadership would take within just a few months of those halcyon days of May 2016, as what was once viewed as steely strength became instead characterized as arrogance.
As the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal gained traction, and as the Enterprise Minister responsible for overseeing the scheme’s introduction, she refused to accept responsibility for its failings, instead blaming civil servants for the financial flaws.
When party colleague Jonathan Bell went rogue and gave an interview to the BBC’s Stephen Nolan claiming his party leader intervened to prevent him closing the flawed green energy scheme, she responded by accusing him of bullying her.
December was a testing month for Mrs. Foster; having managed to survive a vote of no confidence to her leadership, she followed an ill-advised media strategy of arrogant, blame denial and there was speculation she wouldn’t survive the recess.
January was worse still, and without question, the start of the First Minister’s ongoing ‘Annus horriblis’ as Sinn Féin withdrew their support for her leadership and forced a new election.
It was during the snap election campaign the flaws in her previous ‘project fear’ election strategy became glaringly obvious.
Sinn Féin installing a new female leader in the form of Michelle O’Neill removed any scope for claims of misogyny and without a former IRA man to attack, Mrs. Foster struggled for a replacement ‘bad guy.’
Subsequent leadership debates saw a frequent reference to Gerry Adams, who it was noted wasn’t actually standing for election, the use of ‘radical republican agenda’ as a catchphrase also didn’t catch on.
The ill-advised ‘crocodile’ comments, in relation to Irish language speakers, galvanised the Nationalist vote and ended in Sinn Féin’s most successful election since devolution and the removal of a Unionist majority at Stormont for the first time since the formation of the state of Northern Ireland.
With Brexit looming, the future of the border never more relevant, changing demographics and a re-energised Nationalist electorate, the Iron Lady of Unionism may find her legacy will not be her political success in being crowned Northern Ireland’s first female leader but the as the woman who put the future of her precious Union in grave peril.