No deal, no political future for DUP leader

Posted By: October 21, 2017

“Belfast columnist Patrick Murphy provides a key insight for Members of Congress into the state of Unionism in Northern Ireland. It is essential to understand his basic point: “History shows that post-partition Unionism [after the 1920 British Government of Ireland Act, that divided Ireland] is largely founded on a siege mentality, so a Unionist leader can easily be undermined by suggesting that he/she is conceding too much to a real or imaginary enemy.”—Fr. Sean McManus

Patrick Murphy. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, October 21, 2017 

If there is no deal on the return of Stormont, there would appear to be no political future for Arlene Foster.

Predicting politicians’ prospects is not an exact science, but it is difficult to see her surviving as DUP leader unless she returns her party to a fully functioning executive.

It will make little difference to Michelle O’Neill whether Stormont returns or not because,  for Sinn Féin,  Stormont is an option. For the DUP it is a necessity, despite its influence in Westminster. So the outcome of the current talks will also significantly determine the political fortunes of the party and thus the future direction of Unionism.

So what does the future hold for Arlene, the DUP, and Unionism in general? All three face a number of political challenges, but there does not appear to be a clear strategy to address them. While the Unionist bus has loads of passengers, no-one appears to be driving it.

Arlene Foster’s current problems come from two sources: history and her own behavior. History shows that post-partition Unionism is largely founded on a siege mentality, so a Unionist leader can easily be undermined by suggesting that he/she is conceding too much to a real or imaginary enemy.

It was a tactic first exploited by Ian Paisley, who drove Terence O’Neill from office in 1969 and ensured that every future Unionist leader became a prisoner of his/her own right wing. (That wing includes those who oppose Irish language legislation but sing in Irish on July 12: Lile ba léir é, ba linn an lá, meaning that the lily was theirs and they won the day.)

This siege mentality arose because in defending a self-invented politico-religious purity, Unionism failed to develop a broader political base beyond the issue of the State’s existence, particularly from 1922 to 1967. Arlene Foster is now a prisoner of that history.

But she has also contributed to her own problems. Although the DUP gained two extra Westminster seats in June, she presided over the loss of Stormont’s unionist majority in March. Her ill-judged “crocodiles” remark boosted Sinn Féin’s vote.

(She then attempted to defuse Nationalist concerns by visiting a convent school, a tactic also used by Terence O’Neill. But, like him, she merely antagonized her own supporters in yet another re-run of Unionist history.)

More damaging than her electoral performance has been her party’s record in ethics and probity in government. At least some of the RHI scandal appears to have been her responsibility and her failure to discipline Stormont speaker Robin Newton is disturbing, particularly since he is receiving £87,000 a year for a non-existent job.

Then there are the apparent links between some in her party and loyalist paramilitaries, an untenable position while loyalists are driving Catholics from their homes in Cantrell Close.

Political leaders need two skills: leadership and a sense of politics. Mrs. Foster has not impressed in either and she now faces a choice of two career evils. She can agree to a stand-alone Irish language act and lose the support of her party, or she can witness Stormont’s cold storage and lose the support her party.

A year ago this column confidently asserted that she was the most secure Unionist leader since Lord Brookeborough. She was, but she confused personal ability with political arrogance and lost the plot.

(That same column wondered why SF was not challenging Robin Newtown for failing to reveal his links to Charter NI, while using his position as speaker to prevent the SDLP from raising questions about it. How the fortunes of Sinn Féin and the DUP have changed since then.)

Only Sinn Féin can rescue Arlene now. Martin McGuinness might have, but Gerry Adams is unlikely to. Her only hope is that Sinn Féin might want Stormont’s return to influence the Brexit deal on The North, but there is little sign of that happening.

Unionism’s problem is that, for 100 years, its leaders failed to move its electorate away from the ‘not-an-inch’ philosophy. Mike Nesbitt tried and his party suffered the consequences. Arlene Foster did not try and may be about to personally suffer those same consequences.

It is too late for her to change now, but if her successor is not to repeat her same mistakes, he/she must re-position Unionism as outward looking and inclusive rather than defensive and divisive.

Sadly, there does not appear to be anyone in the DUP’s ranks who has suggested such a move and without a return to Stormont, the party is destined to curse the darkness rather than light a candle.

The DUP may be in the darkness for a while.