Once smokin’ hot Arlene is now just a damp squib

Posted By: November 17, 2017


Distributed by Irish National Caucus

William Scholes.Irish News. Belfast. Friday, November 17, 2017

WITH Arlene Foster in hiding – can you remember when she last offered anything on, say, the Stormont talks or Brexit? – it seems the DUP’s center of gravity has tilted towards Westminster.

This is good news for Nigel ‘the mighty’ Dodds, who has been front and center of the DUP’s media appearances lately, lapping up the limelight like a lizard lying in the sun.

It seems hard to believe it now, but a mere 12 months ago Mrs. Foster was so hot she was smokin’.

The DUP song-and-dance department even came up with a special chant to emphasize her status: ‘Arlene’s on fire’, stomped the claque that surrounded her on stage at the party’s annual conference last year.

To the outsider, it was a particularly excruciating new addition to the already-bulging canon of gut-wrenching awfulness and lack of self-awareness that the political parties have already inflicted upon us.

Not that the DUP cared – even when they had to apologize for bellowing ‘Arlene’s on fire’ at the same La Mon hotel venue where 12 people died in an IRA firebomb – because Arlene could do no wrong.

But that was then, and this is now.

In the year since Arlene was on fire, she has displayed a full alpha to omega of political ineptitude.

Repeated missteps over the Renewable Heat Incentive [RHI] scandal – remember the fireside oration? – and the crocodile comments over the Irish language are among the highlights.

The crisis around Mrs. Foster also made public some of the spikier aspects of her character – being tone deaf to criticism, countenancing taking no blame, an inability to accept responsibility or apologize with credible sincerity.

A politician with a more instinctive touch, generous nature or pragmatic sense might have been able to smooth over the cracks.

Arguably most damaging was the hammering that Mrs. Foster’s reputation for competence in ministerial office took as the RHI shambles deepened.

A gaffe-prone throttle bottom, she is a leader diminished; no longer the first minister, no longer in government at Stormont and, perhaps, no longer master of her party’s political destiny.

The Arlene who was on fire has become a political damp squib – more compostable than combustible – and it is hard to imagine another fingernails-down-the-blackboard rendition of the chant at the DUP’s annual back-slapper next week.

Mrs. Foster will, of course, be prominent at the conference – she is still the party leader, after all – and can be expected to point to a number of achievements since the DUP last met.

She can reflect on how the DUP remained unionism’s biggest party following March’s assembly election.

There won’t be any lingering over the inconvenient fact that the DUP also lost 10 seats – albeit to a thus-far imaginary assembly of 90 seats rather than 108 – and that it was the first time since partition in 1921 that Unionist parties did not hold a majority.

Nor has Mrs. Foster indicated by anything she has previously said or done that she has the gumption, humility or political nous to address the fact that the Assembly election only happened because of her attitude towards RHI.

Another achievement she can point to – with an enormous red, white and blue fluorescent arrow, if she likes – is the DUP’s impressive showing in June’s Westminster election.

With the votes of 10 MPs to call upon and Theresa May’s Conservative party on the ropes, the DUP found itself in a position of influence in London that it can have only dreamed.

It was political manna from heaven for Mrs. Foster – there she was, in and out of Downing Street – but it has become clear that the levers of the £1 billion ‘confidence and supply’ deal cooked up with the Tories rest firmly in London, not Belfast.

This is bad news for Mrs. Foster because it puts the DUP deputy leader, Nigel ‘the mighty’ Dodds in a strong – mighty, even – position.

The longer Stormont remains defunct, the less relevant it will become. In the gradual drift towards direct rule, MPs, and not MLAs, will become more important.

With the Tories needing to keep the DUP onside during a series of difficult votes on Brexit, it will be Mr. Dodds, the party’s leader at Westminster, that the government will be courting on a daily basis, not an increasingly irrelevant party leader elected to an Assembly which can’t assemble.

And with regular revelations expected, possibly for years to come, from the RHI inquiry, there will be recurring questions over Mrs. Foster’s competence and role in the disastrous scheme.

It is unlikely that there will be any moves against Mrs. Foster just yet, assuming she eventually emerges from wherever DUP HQ has secreted her.

But the longer nothing happens at Stormont, the more vulnerable she will become.

This time next year, will we be seeing the dying embers of Mrs. Foster’s career as DUP leader?