The DUP has changed its views on marriage and abortion but Arlene Foster’s lack of graciousness remains

Posted By: July 25, 2019

DUP leader Arlene Foster gave a rare interview to the BBC on Sunday
Newton Emerson. Irish News. Belfast. Thursday, July 25, 2019 


ARLENE Foster gave an interview to Mark Carruthers on BBC Sunday Politics last weekend that has since been chiefly noted for her refusal to credit Martin McGuinness with helping organize the Open golf tournament.

Speaking from Portrush, the DUP leader would only say “there were many people that would have loved to be here, but unfortunately cannot be here”, as if her former partner in government had merely missed his bus.

Foster’s inability to be gracious about Sinn Féin is not an insignificant point.

It contributed to Stormont’s collapse, makes restoration more difficult, and will undermine stability if she returns as the first minister, which remains the default assumption.

But none of this should distract from the rest of her interview, which was significant for happening at all.

Foster has appeared so rarely on BBC Northern Ireland over the past two years that she has been accused of boycotting it, yet she gave Carruthers a live 10-minute interview – a high-risk eternity in television terms.

Although the DUP leader could not bring herself to be nice about McGuinness, she could not be drawn to criticize Sinn Féin.

Pressed to blame Republicans for the absence of devolution, she would only repeat a line that they had walked out, with even this offered more as an observation than an attack.

The meat of Foster’s remarks concerned same-sex marriage and abortion, following Westminster’s intervention to impose both if Stormont is not restored by October.

Asked why Sinn Féin should now strike any deal before then, Foster effectively conceded same-sex marriage, saying her party lacks the numbers to raise a petition of concern against it.

In fact, the DUP has lacked the numbers since 2017 but would need only two MLAs from other parties to raise a petition.

It has been taken as given that TUV leader Jim Allister plus one Ulster Unionist would oblige and the DUP has done nothing until now to debunk that belief.

What Foster appeared to be signaling on Sunday is that the DUP will not support a petition against same-sex marriage.

This has the additional appeal to Sinn Féin of knocking reform of the petition off the agenda.

Reform has frequently been suggested as the answer to everything, including an Irish language act.

But Sinn Féin is as keen as the DUP to keep the petition, as both parties demonstrated by ignoring their commitment to reform it under the 2015 Fresh Start agreement and ignoring the issue again in their failed draft deal last year.

On abortion, Foster proposed a more direct compromise.

Westminster intervention will decriminalize abortion in Northern Ireland from October, with legislation to follow next March.

During her interview, Foster said the DUP would like legislation focused on cases of rape and fatal fetal abnormality and Sinn Féin would also like a more limited regime than complete decriminalization up to 24 weeks, so both parties should get back to Stormont to work it out.

This was a major, unacknowledged policy shift. The DUP strongly opposed legalizing abortion in cases of rape and fatal fetal abnormality right up until Stormont collapsed, voting against it in the Assembly and stalling it in the executive.

While Sinn Féin may want a law that stops short of outright decriminalization, it is audacious to suggest there is a simple mid-point between both parties.

What Foster’s interview revealed is how badly spooked the DUP is by the dam-burst of Westminster intervention, which risks the party losing all control over the Stormont talks agenda.

Sinn Féin’s motivation to cut a deal before October is the DUP’s desperation.

Overall, what feels most significant about Foster’s interview is that she could not be gracious enough in defeat to say the party has revised its views.

Her position was that the DUP is still correct to oppose same-sex marriage and abortion but can no longer hold the line.

It may take a less brittle leader to provide a more positive vision for government.