Foster cannot move agenda forward without help of opponents

If Sinn Féin become largest party, First Minister’s DUP leadership is over

Surrounded by DUP delegates as they sang "Arlene's on fire" up on stage with their new heroine at their party conference in Belfast last October, Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster appeared in total control.

Last May’s 2016 Assembly election had seen the DUP defy political gravity in seeing its previous total of 38 MLAs equalled. Unionist rivals were again eclipsed. It was, by any reckoning, a stunning performance.

Foster's position as party leader and First Minister seemed assured until 2021 and probably beyond. A DUP previously nervous of taking an electoral hit under Peter Robinson was grateful. The switch of leader just prior to the election appeared a masterstroke.

Her Christian name was ubiquitous throughout the campaign. The Church of Ireland, former Ulster Unionist Party, female Fermanagh-based politician appeared to tick every box still unoccupied by the DUP.


Foster forgot that apparent DUP hegemony is only DUP-Sinn Féin duopoly, easily dismantled by republican awkwardness. Nonetheless, both Executive parties briefly overcame their differences to unite in scorning the electorally flat-lining UUP and SDLP. The new opposition's leaders were witheringly dismissed by Foster as "Steptoe and Son".

Observers assumed, wrongly, the emergence of a fruitful Foster-McGuinness relationship rather than a hideously loveless marriage.

Eight months on from overseeing the DUP triumph, where does Foster stand within her seemingly adoring party?

The DUP does family love very well, but it also does ruthless. Witness the encouragement to Dr Paisley to stand aside in 2008 when it became obvious that his rhetorical skills of protest were redundant amid the demands of power.

Foster acquired sufficient electoral credit last year to withstand any internal pressure to step aside – and there has been precious little.

DUP determination

A DUP First Ministerial hiatus is not unknown – Foster was the beneficiary of such in 2010 amid Peter Robinson’s local difficulties – but where Sinn Féin requests, the DUP tends to refuse. Indeed, the demands of republicans for Foster to stand down solidified DUP determination to resist even if a tactical retreat may been better policy.

Not every DUP Assembly member has been convinced. The Twitter silence from some of those otherwise unafraid to express themselves speaks volumes.

There is nervousness from those who fear that competence may come to supplant constitution as a key voting determinant.

Crucially however, no elected representative, from MPs down to the humblest councillor, has followed ex-minister – and soon to be ex-member – Jonathan Bell on to their knees to pray for deliverance from Foster. One ex-MLA, David McIlveen, voiced disquiet, but there are more Catholics in the DUP than unseated Assembly members, so a chorus this was not.

The DUP leader's backing would, of course, disappear if the DUP's electoral ascendancy is ended. A 10-seat lead over Sinn Féin going into the March contest (assuming Secretary of State Brokenshire has no magical powers to prevent an election) is comfortable but not unassailable. If Sinn Féin becomes the largest party, Foster's DUP leadership is over.

Assuming more than one candidate was allowed to emerge (not, hitherto, the case in party history) there would be a leadership contest, with perhaps the tiniest electorate of any modern party: MPs, MLAs and a solitary MEP.

DUP punishment from unionist voters – defecting to the UUP or TUV – along with the reduction in Assembly size from 108 to 90, might see the DUP struggles to return the 30 MLAs needed to give the party its crucial veto – the ability to table Petitions of Concern requiring cross-community consent for legislation. Failure to achieve this tally could also be a career-ender.

For now Foster retains loyal and extensive backing, including, crucially, from the party’s special advisers, the ruthless, intelligent brains behind the organisation.


Foster’s internal popularity, also evident among the grassroots, is bolstered by her hardline stances. Whilst the DUP no longer offers outright sectarian rhetoric– Paisleyite demagogic anti-popery long consigned to history – the party’s mellowing is modest.

The biggest misreading of Foster’s elevation was to assume that her untypical background rendered her a relative moderate. However, her back story of her school bus bombing and father’s shooting by the IRA makes her viscerally anti-republican.

Religious, opposed to same-sex marriage and anti-abortion, Foster’s views chime with the DUP base. The bulk of members are weekly churchgoers. Over half believe homosexuality is wrong, and only one in five would legalise abortion.

While most acute among the old guard, stridency and social conservatism are far from confined to the DUP’s diminishing Free Presbyterian wing, now less than one-third of the membership.

Politically, most DUP members placed themselves at eight or above when asked where they placed themselves on a 0 (left) to ten (right) scale. Foster appears within that range, a comfortable Brexiteer with decided views on national sovereignty.


Foster joined the DUP when it was a party denouncing powersharing with Sinn Féin. Foster was not alone in transferring. One-quarter of the DUP used to belong to the UUP, deserting after the 1998 Belfast Agreement

Like the party they defected to, this group never supported the Belfast Agreement, and struggled to fully accept some of its core ideas of mandatory powersharing.

Yet the rules of the game have not changed since the DUP supplanted the UUP. Foster has conquered her party, defeated (for now) her old one, and could yet be a major figure, but she can now achieve nothing more without the assistance of her political opponents.

Jon Tonge is professor of politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest to Power (Oxford University Press).