More than the leadership of Arlene Foster it’s about what the DUP under unprecedented pressure, is for

In “Arlene Foster’s authority is ebbing away“, Newton assesses the pressure on  her  in the Irish Times.  His fascinating analysis is  the latest example of local Kremlinology  peering into the suffocatingly tight networks that dominate these little parties.   But new outside elements are at play as never before to supplement rapid change at home , like the unpredictable fallout of Brexit and pressures for social change from London and Dublin. But for these pressures to have full effect, they must register in a restored Stormont. Might they be creating reasons for the DUP, hitherto the champions of devolution, to stay away in an remarkable reversal of roles with Sinn Fein ?  But first, back to the machinations.

Whoever briefed against Arlene Foster this week has a mischievous sense of timing. The DUP leader was meeting Michael Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, in Brussels on Tuesday morning. At precisely the same time, BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan show was leading with exclusive comments from an unnamed “senior” DUP politician, who claimed a Stormont deal had been drafted last month with Sinn Féin.

Brussels was where it was at for NI politics yesterday as Sinn Fein Northern leader Michelle  O’Neill stuck in the knife, saying that  Arelene had handed her a hard copy of a draft power-sharing agreement on 9 February, only days before the Stormont talks collapsed

Mrs Foster responded that “draft papers” were exchanged on a daily basis – but that none had any standing. They were an exchange of ideas between negotiating teams .I can categorically state there was never any agreement reached.

Viewed through the prism of internal  DUP politics, a likely contender for any leadership vacancy Simon Hamilton, a notable pragmatist by DUP standards, deflected fire from his leader against Sinn Fein for running  “a scorched earth policy.”  He declared the outlook for an agreement “bleak”.

The DUP didn’t have much luck either in what they might have thought was safe ground.   Even though it is part of the  DUP deal with the Conservatives at Westminster, the DUP have been rebuffed by the government   in a bid to amend the equality provisions of  section 75 of the NI Act  implementing the GFA, to extend the military covenant to former security forces who served in NI. This would favour  giving support to them over other victims and is opposed by Sinn Fein and the SDLP  until or unless the deadlock over dealing with the past is broken. The UK government believe that in fact section 75 creates no legal no barrier to  extending the covenant. But the delay  in implementing  it shows they  may be prepared to take calculated risks with their pact with the DUP rather than bow to any particular demand to amend the GFA.  Sinn Fein are  claiming that a separate deal  they’ve struck with the government to fund historical inquests still stands.

Pressure was also mounting on the DUP from all sides at Westminster on International Woman’s Day  to lift the ban on abortion

The letter, signed by 131 parliamentarians including eight Conservatives such as the former education secretary Justine Greening and the former chancellor Ken Clarke, the former Liberal leader David Steel and the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, follows a UN declaration that forcing women to travel for an abortion is an infringement of their human rights.

With the government advertising its support for women’s rights ahead of International Women’s Day on Thursday, the timing of the letter is likely to be embarrassing. The Conservatives govern in alliance with the DUP, which opposes abortion.

Stella Creasy, the Labour MP for Walthamstow, said the scale and cross-party nature of support for the change should force the government’s hand.

“We have heard talk of the importance of regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK but that concern does not seem to extend to the basic human right of not to be forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy,” she told the Guardian.

This is another example of a new trend, of Westminster proving willing to exert pressure on a devolved body like Stormont if they feel  basic citizen rights  guaranteed elsewhere in the UK  are not implemented locally. The dramatic precedent  will be recalled.

The UK government has revealed plans to provide free abortion services in England for women from Northern Ireland, which has some of Europe’s most restrictive laws on terminations.

The government announced a change of policy in June in an attempt to head off a Tory rebellion in a vote on the Queen’s speech. Dozens of Conservatives had suggested to whips that they would vote on an amendment spearheaded by the Labour MP Stella Creasy to give Northern Irish women free access to termination


“Sorry this is a devolved  matter”   is no longer a complete answer. It  shows MPs  being prepared to  force change in Northern Ireland where they can identify with the issue.

But if we look at it as a narrow question about the leadership, how can Foster be removed without damaging the party?    Like Sinn Fein, democratic centralism and national identity have been the DUP’s USP to consolidate their leading role. Crack it open and collapse threatens. The terrible fate of the Ulster Unionists and every leader who tacked to the left is their nightmare.

The fate of Ian Paisley has never been adequately explained.  The party’s heart was against him but their pragmatic head in the form of Robinson bit the bullet with Paisley’s  charisma masking the recantation  of old orthodoxy. In such a fluid situation as today’s  with outside forces at play as never before, it is possible to imagine a rethink on the abortive deal combined with incentives for Stormont to manage the post-Brexit outcome for Northern Ireland.   But this will need more luck and choreography than the DUP can provide on their own.  For that, the two governments will have to come together.  And the DUP will have to re-imagine what they are for.  They above all people, should know that their own little world is not their creation.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London