Foster: Onward to the summit

Today Arlene Foster will speak to the DUP conference for the first time as party leader. Writing for Slugger she outlines her vision and plan for the next mandate of government 

Detail is important.  For someone from a legal background like myself this is a given. Within the DUP Conference programme, there are details that are important to me and the direction I have set for my party and for Northern Ireland.

In the conference booklet I make the statement that the DUP is the natural party of government of Northern Ireland.  On one level, it is a statement of the obvious – the DUP has been the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly for over a decade.  However, it is also a statement of how far the DUP has come in its history.

Throughout the existence of the old Stormont government, and even before, there was a firm strain of anti-establishment politics.  The onset of the terrorist campaigns, the appeal of Lord Bannside and organisational skills of Peter Robinson brought together and sustained this as a political party.  However, a majority of Unionism did not opt for it until a period of critical choices.  In that period the Ulster Unionist Party under David Trimble’s failed leadership systematically proved the DUP’s criticisms of it to be true – a UUP that was disengaged, disorganised and incapable of advancing Unionism.

A critique alone was not enough for the DUP to advance but it needed to show itself willing and able to take up the mantle of leadership for Unionism and Northern Ireland. Both Lord Bannside and Peter Robinson showed the desire to be more than a vehicle for protest but to deliver the progress Unionists wanted and Northern Ireland needed.  This is why I and so many of my generation came to see it as the future.

Since it became the largest party we have worked assiduously to advance devolution and to get devolution to deliver.  The agreements the DUP achieved proved their value in developing devolution and making it deliver more.  They were always better than what went before.

We now have a system of devolution which has shown itself to be durable.  It is hard to imagine a form of crisis that devolution hasn’t had to face and overcome. It has sustained, not because of self-interest, but because the people of Northern Ireland ultimately want it and want it to work.  The people will get frustrated and angry – just as I and others within government will do at times – but that is driven not by a rejection of devolution but the desire for it to succeed.

The settled will for devolution in Northern Ireland requires our political culture and representation to advance.  In our conference we feature heavily the MLAs elected for the first time in 2016. In May, almost a quarter of the DUP MLAs were elected to the Assembly for the first time.  In my mind this is the “devolution generation” stepping forward and the voters supporting them.

Another part of our programme is a report on educational underachievement by Cllr Peter Martin.  He developed an interest in the issue and in his own time researched and wrote a detailed paper with his ideas on what needs to change. This type of initiative and policy focus is what the “devolution generation” needs.  The settled will of devolution means more work for a politician not less. They will have to help their constituents and have a knowledge of policy and ideas to make communities better.

Our ascent to the natural party of government doesn’t mean overseeing the paper shuffling.   The natural party of government mustn’t mean the DUP becomes the party of the establishment or bureaucracy, to be true to our roots we must be the party of ideas.

The DUP’s work is far from over. The terrorist campaigns were our painful and unnecessary journey through the wilderness.  The work of the last decade on devolution was the construction of our base camp.  From here, with the sage advice of our experienced politicians bound to the energy of the devolution generation we press on for the summit  – a Northern Ireland that enters a new century in 2021, harnessing the talents of all its people that will make it the global success that it once was again.

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.

  • Korhomme

    Interesting to compare/contrast the initial statements here:

    Detail is important. For someone from a legal background like myself this is a given.

    with the responses in an interview published in today’s Irish News

    Referring to the scheme she says, amongst other things:

    “I hope you’re not suggesting I get to see every single jot and tittle that goes on in every ministerial department.

    “Ministers do not get to see that level of detail as you well know. We get to see the overall policy in terms of those renewable schemes.”

  • Brian Walker

    Marked by efficiency and “a lawyer’s attention to detail”, Mrs Foster’s style comes across pretty clearly in her Guardian piece and in this post.

    Leaving aside the inevitably sanitised narrative of the DUP’s origins in “antiestablishment politics” under the man she identifies as the now remote figure of Lord Bannside, she is setting herself above the churn of identity politics that can so easily degenerate into sectarian rows.

    While this is no bad thing it leaves uncertain what she is sanitising as part of the reinvention that all politicians go through, and what has unconsciously been absorbed into her political and cultural DNA as a child of the Troubles.

    She prides herself on her cool head. Fair enough, as far as it goes. But In her approach to Brexit she seems to believe that open debate with the south on its consequences is, however obscurely at this stage, a threat to unionism. To be fair, this can be seen as her rejoinder to the early overexcited comments from Kenny and Martin and then McGuinness and Eastwood, on reviving the vision of a future united Ireland. But it is arch and artificial to pretend that the south is just another country on the frontier of the EU. I cannot believe it impresses unionists in Fermanagh or anywhere else, any more. Moreover it distances her unnecessarily from nationalists in the north. Worse, it fails to reflect reality. She needs a different vocabulary.

    In her Guardian piece she wrote:
    “No one can plausibly deny that for each part of the UK, the most important trade (never mind social and cultural) relationships are those we have with the rest of the country. This is as true of us in Northern Ireland as it is in Scotland”.

    This stretches a point and as phrased, distances her from her power sharing colleagues and the rest of Ireland. She brushes aside the highly plausible nationalist fears of Brexit consequences as if she simply doesn’t understand them. If this is just politics it can be revised; if it in her DNA it is more worrying. She has wider responsibilities than managing the internal processes of devolution.

    There was once a more generous and confident spirit within unionism before the Troubles which was crushed with disastrous consequences by the unionist tendency she now represents. It needs to be revived. I hope that as she confronts the realities of Brexit on top of power sharing, she will come to adopt it.

  • The Irishman

    I thought exactly the same when I read this

  • Ciaran74

    Some would say the calculated risk is identity polarity between Unionists and Nationalists. Arlene and her team appear not to see any risk as Nationalists don’t vote for them and don’t appear to care about Stormont. That was concluded at the meetings coffee break.

    The orientation to a familiar traditional Unionism seems near complete.

  • Ciaran74

    Is the new heralded dawn of 2021 in dangerous hands Brian? The evaporation of the TUV is down to one mans longevity, UKIP are the local spare tool, the Orange fringes of the UUP have begun to run after Eastwood’s speech, and you cannot have a Nationalist Justice Minister at such a momentous Unionist occasion.

  • Ciaran74

    The statements are astonishing. Her ‘redenner’ was clearly not from embarrassment at a scheme written with crayons. They probably have the biomass boiler at full tilt to max the RHI payment. Let’s see what the other parties are made of on this.

    If they take the ‘be off with you, you vagabond’ then they are all culpable.

    Ps. Went through the scheme myself but opted for other savings and then they closed it. I didn’t trust it at first as it was so good. The Invest NI and study consultant said its slow start was becoming a juggernaut as 100’s of participants received free heat, and £20-50k back per year.

  • Granni Trixie

    “A more generous and confident spirit within unionism before the troubles”?
    That may be your impression Brian but it is not mine. For example as I mentioned a few posts ago, there is a wealth of literature documenting that in the fifties and early sixities the Unionist Party did not see why they should accommodate Catholics. Bob Cooper left that party in 1962 because they didn’t get it when challenged by him and others. I personally believe that if it had not been for unionists refusing to acknowledge discriminatory
    systems and failure of a politics in need of reform, we would not have had the troubles.

    A veneer of good relations does not mask something rotten.

  • Granni Trixie

    I had high hopes that Arlene could lead the DUP away from its sectarian (and probably homophobic) ways. Same old,same old is disappointing,

  • Brian Walker

    All true Granny..but the elements around O’Neill that backed an opening of relations with the south represented a civility and a shift that never really got going. My point is limited and more about the use of language. Echoes of the old Ireland that still gave them a degree of identification with the south were cut off by the Troubles and should be renewed.

  • Ciaran74

    I agree that there were, are and could be many more unionists that are comfortable in their relationship and Irish identity, even if partial.

    However accommodating O’Neill may be perceived or was he still saw it as a matter of houses and television to make us behave like good Protestants. The Irish populations identity was irrelevant.