Following Arlene Foster’s successful first conference as DUP leader and before the frenzy of the run up to the elections in the spring it is maybe time to take stock of the third DUP leader and her achievements thus far.
Firstly even to have become DUP leader is a significant achievement and one which speaks of her political talent no matter what one’s views of her politics.
Foster was a gradually rising star in the UUP under Molyneaux and Trimble’s leadership. She and others parted company with Trimble over the initial Belfast Agreement thought the final split occurred over whether or not to go into government with Sinn Fein prior to IRA decommissioning. At that time a number of the other defectors were actually more senior, centrally Jeffrey Donaldson but also Peter Weir.
Foster, however, flourished in the DUP more than any of the others. In this she was helped by a number of factors.
Her background has helped. She is the daughter of a small farmer and former RUC reservist from South Fermanagh whom the IRA tried to murder. This middle class upbringing is classic DUP and makes her inherently from the same sort of world view as many traditional DUP members and supporters.
Foster was also helped by the fact that Fermanagh was historically UUP territory with very little DUP. As such there were relatively few local DUP members who might have held grudges etc. from previous intra unionist battles.
When Foster, Donaldson and Weir and co joined over a relatively short space of time they were only the leading lights amongst a significant number of UUP people who either defected directly or more often in the case of non elected individuals had allowed their UUP membership to lapse and instead joined the DUP from a technically non aligned but historically UUP position.
This gradual influx of new members massively strengthened the DUP but also possibly made it less of a “family party” than it had been. It also diluted the Free Presbyterian Church at prayer tendenancy which although never quite as simple as it was presented was certainly a perception (remember neither Sammy Wilson, Dessie Boal nor Peter Robisnosn were members of the Free Ps). As such Foster as a practising member of the CoI was entirely unremarkable in a religious sense. The influx of new members also helped move the DUP to “the left” (once again left right in NI terms is flawed but a useful shorthand) which has made Foster on the middle left of the party and far from out on a limb in any sense, politically, socially, confessionally etc.
Personal qualities have also clearly helped. Foster is an immensely likeable and friendly individual. Even now there are stories within the past few weeks and months of her calling round to constituents’ houses almost unannounced to sort out some sort of constituency matter. In addition although ultimately unsuccessful her fight to help keep the Collegiate Grammar School open and separate from Portora was appreciated by many in Fermanagh.
Personal friendliness, remembering where she has come form and constituency work is not, however, enough to be a party leader or First Minister.
In unionist terms she has been fairly impeccably hard line provided one overlooks the fact that she refused to accept power sharing with Sinn Fein under the UUP but accepted a somewhat similar deal with the DUP. That said most people followed that line and it is one which the unionist electorate have, albeit with some misgivings, largely accepted.
Foster is not a push over and can be strident without being shrill. When barracked at an election count she disabused republicans of any notion they could intimidate her. In that I often think a gentle Fermanagh accent is a real asset as it allows one to sound soft yet determined: a problem which, without being sexist, can afflict women in politics.
All these attributes, however, are possessed by large numbers of politicians. Where Foster has additionally done well is in ministerial office. To be fair she has not had the ultimate poisoned chalice of the Department of Health but her ministerial offices have been marked by undramatic even slightly boring competence. Lest that be seen as damning with faint praise it is far from it. In contrast to so many NI ministers Foster is a politician who has successfully got on with being a minister which is a different skill. The highest praise one can offer is that she is a bit like Alistair Darling who managed to make every department he took over fall from the news and simply be administered in an atmosphere of quiet competence.
Where one might criticise Foster is on as George H Bush described it “The vision thing”. Although that might well be a weakness it may well be a deliberate one – something I will come on to in moment.
Foster does not lack a vision for Northern Ireland. Her’s was one of the articles sought by the News Letter a few years ago for a series they were doing (sadly I cannot find it on line). Since being elected Foster has suggested moving Northern Ireland forwards politically and economically and possibly hinted at some social movement though in very limited and coded terms in the case of the latter. She has also spoken of trying to get support from non traditional unionist quarters. Whilst all this is likely to be popular it is both similar to what Peter Robinson had been saying for years and somewhat lacking in detail.
Therein lies a major point. When Robinson tried a serious campaign of reaching out across the divide it initially looked radical and possibly game changing. Robinson was handicapped somewhat by his past in Ulster Resistance: certainly nationalism and republicanism tried to make an issue of it. There is absolutely no doubt, however, that Foster has no such skeletons in any cupboards.
What really sunk Robinson, however, was the flag protests. Many Alliance and nationalist minded may reject this but it was seen by significant numbers of unionists that the flag issue was used, possibly even initiated, to damage Robinson and his liberal outreach to the Catholic unionist Unicorns. Whilst once Paisley “Lundified” UUP leaders the flag protests managed to “Bigotify” Robinson. Whatever the intentions it is undoubtedly the case that in the wake of the flag protests Robinson’s Unicorn outreach programme died away.
Foster will no doubt have learned from this. She may be much more difficult to “Bigotify” than Robinson with her background but like Robinson before her, it will be difficult to stand idly by when an issue of significant importance to hardline unionism arises. Yet by so doing she would like Robinson undermine Unicorn outreach. This is the classic unionist leader dilemma and has been faced to varying extents depending on circumstances and personal temperaments by every unionist leader since Carson and Craig.
As such not announcing any outreach or any other major flesh on bones of her vision prior to the election may be the wisest course of action. Once she has an election under her belt, unless it goes very badly which is highly unlikely (though a little slippage to the UUP and possibly elsewhere seems likely) she will be in a stronger position to outreach. Indeed a little slippage to the UUP might be handy for Foster proving to any in the party who doubt the wisdom of moving “leftwards” that it is where the votes are.
Equally for the TUV and Jim Allister to survive would also be handy for her as it would demonstrate that her party is resolutely middle of the road in unionist terms: that said her party’s middle of the road in unionist terms is more an Ulsterbus taking up most of a Fermanagh B road.
Foster may be seen to have been politically pretty lucky. She has managed to become leader of a pretty united party which seems pretty much behind her. She is also seen as on the moderate wing of her party – in the drivers seat of this political Ulsterbus proceeding down the B road – I accept that in a country where we drive on the left the analogy works less well but neither I nor Foster can change that.
Although she may have seemed lucky and she has been; that luck has been underpinned by sound judgement, competence and hard work. She may, however, struggle with the vision thing as it is simply so hard to articulate in what is actually a fairly limited power political set up, made worse by the nature of power sharing and in a fundamentally divided society.
The precedents of a leader in a divided society truly succeeding in making a permanent bridge are very few and far between. Furthermore when she and the rest of the DUP accepted the St Andrews Agreement they lost what was probably their best chance to create a more functional system of government. Neither Foster nor anyone else in unionism has recently been talking about fundamental change to the very flawed system of governance we have in NI.
Foster is said to see Thatcher as a political role model. I would suggest, however, a better analogy as a woman leader is Angela Merkel who managed, with utter competence, her political brief. Merkel has proven a tough and uncompromising leader but also a deal maker and an excellent administrator though maybe not quite the visionary (for better or worse) of Thatcher.
Of course mention of Merkel brings one to the fact that that leader’s star is very much on the wane. Although Foster seems to have the NI political world at her feet the sad reality is that Enoch Powell dictum is almost always correct: “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.” It might be argued that it was when Merkel left the path of overwhelming if slightly tedious competence and did something visionary that is when she ran into trouble. Something Arlene ought think on though not let it stop her from trying some vision.