Although by now it seems that the four days since Arlene Foster resignation as First Minister seems like ancient history, given all that’s subsequently occurred, it remains important that the appalling revisionism over her tenure is addressed – from a unionist perspective.
In common with most ousted unionist leaders since O’Neill, Arlene is already being presented as a progressive moderniser undermined by the hardcore. Her own allies are peddling this notion, as are nationalist commentators, both for their own ends. But ever has this notion been less deserved.
Let’s be under no illusion, Arlene Foster inherited a decent hand compared to most other unionist leaders. Politically she inherited peace, a floundering UUP, an Alliance Party going nowhere under David Ford, a Republican movement working the institutions of state, a strengthened north-south relationship, and opinion polls consistently stating support for Irish unity at an all-time low. In short, she inherited the union when it was quite probably at its safest since partition.
All the conditions were in her favour. Peter Robinson had brilliantly and ruthlessly created the circumstances where a female, Church of Ireland, non-orange, ex-UUP candidate could be parachuted easily into the leadership of Paisley’s party. Robinson had also cleared out meaningful opposition to the ascension by exiling and isolating potential opponents like Sammy Wilson and Paisley Junior a plane ride away from Stormont and promoted voter friendly individuals like Simon Hamilton into important positions in both party and government.
Arlene inherited a DUP shorn of the worst public vestiges of Paisleyism and a party that for the first time had the chance to appeal to the broadest possible base of pro-union voters. The Executive she inherited had no old Paisleyites in the DUP composition. If consolidated, the DUP was well on the way to becoming the broadly based organisation that David Trimble’s “decent people” (remember them?) could feel at ease with. We’d had possibly the best ever DUP Lord Mayor in Gavin Robinson who presented a voter friendly face capable of regaining East Belfast. In short. Peter Robinson had laid the foundations for a very stable, successful era for Northern Ireland. All Arlene had to be was a safe pair of hands and that exactly what I expected her to be.
In the May Assembly Election they held their seats and nearly held their % vote. But despite the revisionist consensus there was no identifiable “Arlene Bounce”. Things stayed as they were for the DUP but there was the telling factor that the overall pro-UI share of the vote fell by 5%. Nothing to get ecstatic about but definitely something to build on.
But that was as good as things ever got for Arlene and I contend that the bulk of what came next was self-inflicted.
First sign of poor judgement from Arlene (and one that came back to bite here more than most) was here post-election elevation of Paul Givan, fresh from his performance over the Asher’s cake case, to DCAL. Would Robinson have promoted such a proud example of unreconstructed 1980s Paisleyism? It’s hard to imagine it. Did she really want Givan, or was she pandering to the hardcore? Current events would suggest the latter.
At the same time she was hit – not her fault to be sure – with Cameron’s Folly, the Brexit referendum. I genuinely felt sympathy for Arlene during this period. Her initial contributions, while overall supporting withdrawal, were pretty measured and certainly didn’t reflect previous DUP campaigns on the issue. But a late stridency set in, which again suggested an element of pandering to the old school. That plus the failure to defend Simon Hamilton – her Economy Minister of all people –when he was pilloried and ultimately deplatformed by his party when he had the temerity not to say which way he voted in the referendum, Another failure not to stand up to the hardcore.
Then there was her attitude to social issues. Her unrelentingly strident tone on same sex marriage – even going so far as to state categorically that she would invoke the POC to block it every time it was raised – provoked a reaction within the broader pro union community (particularly but not exclusively younger and urban elements) that ultimately led to a situation where Alliance and the Greens made unprecedented gains in local government elections in 2019. Again, where is the distinction between moderniser Arlene and the Paisleyite hardcore?
The Irish language will also be a totem of Arlene’s leadership. This was – and should still be – a non-issue as it was throughout the Robinson/McGuinness years. But through her toleration of Givan and his LIOFA grant withdrawal, her failure to rebuke Gregory Campbell over “curry my yoghurt” (Northern Irish people are far too precious to ever be any good at satire) and her “crocodiles” comment (whatever the merit in that sort of analogy for interest groups within Northern Ireland) she allowed it to be brought centre stage as a totemic issue and one that ultimately fatally wounded her successor. For what it’s worth I didn’t think NI needed an IL Act. I believe it to be superfluous and remains potentially very divisive if abused in the manner we usually abuse things here. But more than anyone else, Arlene is responsible for the circumstances that conspired to make it a do or die issue for people on either side of the community.
I don’t blame Arlene for the protocol. The balance of power in Westminster post 2017 was the worst thing that could have happened to unionism as it was always likely to end sooner rather than later and was never going to end well (that sort of situation rarely does). But that period emboldened certain MPs to behave in a manner that once again Arlene was never seen to deal with. Was she weak or was she simply not bothered? Or both? Who knows? But the one overwhelming point over her years of leadership is that Arlene never gave any public indication of disagreement or disapproval of the attitudes or behaviours of those she and her allies now seek to demonise.
So to the manner of her departure. It has been widely presented as “cruel” or “brutal”, but I cannot sympathise with her on this given the manner in which she joined the DUP six years after the Good Friday Agreement and – more tellingly not until the DUP had finally overtaken the UUP as an electoral force. She and her allies spent much of their time in the years following the GFA working within the UUP to undermine their own leader, only to eventually jump ship to ultimately embrace a worse version of Trimble and Hume’s agreement. Trimble’s big fault was often cited as his personal inability to take his party membership with him to the point where he was fatally weakened in the eyes of the pro union electorate. Ring any bells?
I said earlier that this article is written from a unionist perspective. Unapologetically so. I do not believe that devolution has in any way been good for the health of the union either here or in Scotland. But it is here and ending it wouldn’t help the union. So what I want to see is Northern Ireland governed in the same secular, accepting way as the rest of the UK (for all its recent faults) has been. The leadership of the two unionist parties need to catch up with the broad pro union community before too many of them become irreparably alienated. I think that can be achieved.
So to the remarkable demise of Edwin Poots. Poots had already proved himself a capable dealmaker in the past and I believed he showed genuine courage in nominating a First Minister this week. However he failed to learn from the history of his party, so faced the one apparently insurmountable hurdle that has dogged DUP leaders back as far as Paisley in the Constitutional Convention in 1975. That is their inability to take the party grassroots membership (as opposed to a much more willing broader unionist population) with them when they agree a risky deal with nationalism.
Up until Thursday he had the strongest traditionalist DUP credentials to do that so it looked like he might be the man. But obviously all bets are off. In turn this latest putsch undermined the claims of the Donaldson camp to be the more inclusive wing of the party. So does that strengthen Doug Beattie’s opportunity – in the more medium post-election – to strengthen the pro-union centre enough to give him the confidence to do it. Neither Beattie nor whoever succeeds Poots have inherited the good hand Arlene Foster was bequeathed, but one or both will need to be much better card players than she proved to be.
Ian Clarke spent 36 years in sales & marketing for newspapers in Northern Ireland, England and Scotland – including the Belfast Telegraph, Wolverhampton Express & Star, Northern Echo and The Herald (Glasgow) after graduating from QUB in Political Science. Glentoran supporter.