I previously likened Arlene Foster to the battleship HMS Warspite (a famously attractive and effective ship, once the most modern and best in the world) when she was sent to fight the Fermanagh by election. On that occasion it was a little like the use of Warspite in the Second Battle of Narvik. However, the DUPs use of Foster is becoming more and more like the Admiralty’s use of Warspite during the Second World War. She along with her sister ships was used on may occasions where the British needed to produce overwhelming fire power but would not risk the newer battleships.
Bringing Foster in as acting first minister is a clever tactic by the DUP. However, it is a tactic born out of weakness and not strength. Foster is a safe pair of hands; she will almost certainly discharge her responsibilities competently and efficiently. She may even do so with a degree of flair (a little like her excellent shoes). She is unlikely to say or do anything terribly stupid during her tenure. As an aside are fancy shoes really appropriate for the DUP? If she were a man I would expect a more dour and sober type such as Church’s. I am unsure on suitable dour upmarket women’s shoes (I am really a Crockett and Jones man myself): Elenwe is currently eyeing a pair of Paul Smith’s but she has a dangerous liberal streak.
In addition she is a politician who has a track record of success in her ministerial career and indeed is the only DUP politician to have scored an unalloyed victory for the party since the 2007 assembly elections and the subsequent decision by the DUP to enter power sharing with Sinn Fein (the Fermanagh by election).
Although by all accounts Foster has been popular as well as able in DUP circles she is not from one of the three great political dynasties which appear to rule the DUP like feudal lords (Robinsons, Paisleys Dodds), though she seems fairly close to the Robinson one. In addition although a religious woman she is CoI and not Free Presbyterian. As such she does not have the sort of natural constituency which would make her a likely short term leadership rival for Robinson, nor being a Robinson loyalist, does she look like someone who would try to steer the party away from his proposed direction.
At Jutland in the First World War Warspite and three of her sister ships held off the whole German High Seas Fleet for an hour. At the end of that part of the battle, Warspite, her rudder damaged, circled twice in front of the Germans being fired on and hit repeatedly. All the time, however the 15 guns rang out smashing one German ship after another and in the process of her turns she protected the damaged armoured cruiser HMS Warrior. Again Arlene seems to be playing HMS Warspite, bravely defending Peter Robinson and at the same time I suspect she will land some heavy hits of her own on the DUP’s political opponents.
In all this use of Mrs. Foster there are, however, a few difficulties: Mrs. Foster is not really a traditional DUP member; as mentioned above she is CoI rather than a more fundamentalist Protestant denomination. This may not be that relevant in the new DUP but if an agreement is hammered out over P&J it could look to some that the relatively speaking liberals had taken over the DUP and spoiled it. The suggestion has frequently been made that the DUP are now where the UUP were under Trimble and even that the UUP defectors managed to take over the DUP. Mrs. Foster’s elevation could reinforce that slightly paranoid suggestion.
For Foster there are also some dangers: if there is a deal over P&J and if there is any sort of blacklash against it, she could be seen as having been instrumental in the treachery. If Robinson is forced to go, she could, as his chosen substitute, be caught in the fallout of his demise. It has to be remembered that mighty as the Queen Elizabeth battleships were, HMS Barham was sunk in the Mediterranean in 1941.