We’ve heard the names. Barely an hour had passed from news breaking about a letter aimed at removing Arlene Foster from her leadership of the DUP, of Unionism and of the Northern Ireland Executive, and already names of willing replacements were circulating. But there’s something unusual about this process that hasn’t been commented on to the extent I’d expected.
The names you’ll have heard are being put forward for DUP Leader, but have any been advanced for the position of First Minister? One leadership candidate, Sir Jeffery Donaldson, cannot become First Minister (at least not immediately) because he is an MP and not an MLA, and the other, Edwin Poots, reportedly does not wish to be First Minister. Poots hasn’t faced the press yet, but nor has he, or any of his ‘out’ supporters, suggested whom he might nominate for First Minister if elected leader. I’m mystified why this question isn’t yet to the fore of public conversation.
Small picture, the first-mover advantage gained by Poots might have been even greater had he angled at being the ‘man with the plan’. It needn’t have even been five points, just a plan would do. Now Donaldson has the opportunity to name a would-be nominee for First Minister as a running mate. That broader ticket could serve to access more of the undeclared support. Donaldson could also argue that it’s ‘cleaner’ to have a leader outside the Assembly with a deputy heading up Executive, than to have a First Minister sitting in the Executive with an Agriculture Minister who outranks him or her in the party. Who’s really in charge in that meeting?
But until then, let’s go big picture and consider what it tells us about where the DUP sits today that the party’s fourth leader could be the first not to assume the joint head of devolved government. Is it the case that the DUP don’t want to leave Government, but want to be back in opposition at the same time?
Since the St Andrew’s agreement, we have had three successive First Ministers from the DUP, Paisley Snr., Robinson and Foster. All three travelled a long road, leading eventually to the ultimate historical concession: sharing the Executive Office with the late Martin McGuinness (although all three would go on to form their own unique friendship with the former IRA commander). This was the price of power. Now the question arises, has that price become too steep with inflation? Among the host of actors it set its face against, the DUP reserved its deepest ire for (IRA) Sinn Féin. Now Sinn Féin has become a sort of kryptonite which saps each leader’s authority just through proximity. I suspect a strong motivation for considering splitting the leadership and First Minister roles is as a way to avoid having to be continually photographed with Michelle O’Neill.
But to have men aspire to lead the DUP and not the Executive is a substantially new dynamic. Arlene Foster said on Friday last that the party isn’t the same one she joined. That was the DUP led by Ian Paisley, just as socially conservative as today, not one ounce more or less inclined to contemplate a world beyond the Union.
So what has changed?
Quick answer: power. They were a party craving power in 2004 when Mrs Foster defected, now they’re a party trying to maintain power and manage the impact of being in power. Maybe this isn’t what Foster means, but what I’d diagnose as the issue she’s observing: the desire to maintain power while regaining the benefits of outsiderdom and opposition. In this sense, the DUP have come to resemble Fianna Fáil: both have consolidated support and gained momentum through opposition which has swept them to extended periods power, and both have done their most dramatic bloodletting while in power (c.f. Arms Trial, 1970; Micheál Martin’s heave against Brian Cowen in 2011).
During the Brexit debate, the DUP and its MPs were on familiar ground. Oppose and don’t blink. Do what’s worked in the past. Don’t make concessions as they’ll only lead to more. Opposing the Good Friday Agreement eventually won them political ascendancy and the pathway to legitimising taking power via the St Andrew’s Agreement. But this time it didn’t work. Opposing a UK-wide customs alignment backstop eventually got them a Northern Ireland-only customs alignment, a frontstop in the form of the NI Protocol. In the process, Brexit revealed contradictory thinking within the party. You can dig up audio of Sir Jeffery Donaldson being asked on the day the UK and EU negotiators eventually published their December 2017 Joint Report if this was a great day for Northern Ireland and answering ‘Absolutely’. We now know that the commitment in that Report to avoid a hard land border on the island set the course for where we now are post-Brexit, but Donaldson was minded to consider the opportunities of remaining connected to both the EU and UK. You’d be hard pressed, on the other hand, to find him enthusing about the type of No-Deal/WTO-terms Brexit that Sammy Wilson was receptive to.
Now what’s the easiest way to smooth over internal inconsistency? Agree on what you disagree with. Be my enemy’s enemy and that will make us friends. In opposing the backstop, the DUP drew very little attention to any contradictions in what they were saying should be done instead. But now Stormont’s back and governing is on again and contradictions, such as between what is said about the Protocol versus what is done about the Protocol, are harder to conceal.
Should the bifurcation of leader and First Minister-designate transpire, the DUP’s leadership will more readily resemble some of their Executive colleagues/electoral opponents. The UUP is represented in the Executive by its former leader, while Steve Aiken focuses on reviving the party. The SDLP’s leader is not sitting at Stormont with its Deputy holding its one ministry. Sinn Féin’s case is interesting, as its President is in Dublin. As the elected Vice-President of the party, Michelle O’Neill is unambiguously its senior Northern figure, though that election came subsequent to an appointment by Gerry Adams as the party’s nominee for Deputy First Minister following Martin McGuinness’s resignation in 2017. This process has drawn Sinn Féin criticism for a lack of internal democracy, so it’s interesting that theirs is the one the DUP process may end up most closely resembling. The odd one out? Naomi Long opted not to delegate the Justice Ministry to a colleague. She has therefore chosen to own a record as a minister and co-own the record of the Executive.
But again, what does this say of the DUP’s self-concept. Surely were they not meant to be above all that? Seeing itself as Unionism’s natural and true voice, the party of 2007 wouldn’t have considered the need for Unionism to be led from one office and the Stormont government from another. It suggests a party much less sure of its footing than that of its first three leaders. And it is an admission of same.
Finally, what does it say when the DUP is the institution which its senior members are manoeuvring to take charge of and lead, while the institution of the Executive Office seems to have become at best to an afterthought, or perhaps a potato too hot to juggle?