The Irish Times view on Arlene Foster’s resignation: scapegoat for a troubled party

Assailed by fundamentalist Protestantism as well as those angered at the outworking of a Brexit they supported, the DUP leader’s position became impossible some time ago

Assailed by fundamentalist Protestantism as well as those angered at the outworking of a Brexit they supported, Arlene Foster’s position became impossible some time ago. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Assailed by fundamentalist Protestantism as well as those angered at the outworking of a Brexit they supported, Arlene Foster’s position became impossible some time ago. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

The resignation of DUP leader Arlene Foster, yet another unionist leader forced out by hardliners, points up Northern Ireland’s political instability. The 50-year-old’s five years in the job touched heights and depths. Assailed by fundamentalist Protestantism as well as those angered at the outworking of a Brexit they supported, her position became impossible some time ago.

The IRA injured Foster’s father when she was eight, and the teenage classmate beside her on a school-bus. Installed as DUP leader by the wilier Peter Robinson, her youth, energy and outgoing nature were initially popular. The flip side of her warmth is sharpness of speech. Equating movement towards an Irish language act with feeding crocodiles was an unnecessary jibe, boosted the Sinn Féin vote and all but erased the notion that she might prioritise cross-community reconciliation. Attempts to manage Covid alongside Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill have struggled against the brazenness of the Republican funeral for IRA leader Bobby Storey and DUP determination to stay clear of an all-Ireland approach.

Successful elections in 2016 and 2017 were followed by the inquiry into the disastrous Renewable Heat Initiative scheme that Foster as minister established, and a three-year suspension of Stormont.

Her deputy leader, veteran MP Nigel Dodds, chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Foster herself overplayed their hand in their Westminster deal to prop up Theresa May’s government. Vetoing May’s effort to avoid an Irish Sea border was foolish. They misread the EU and overestimated Tory commitment to Northern Ireland, almost ludicrously hewing to faithless Boris Johnson.

Loss of the unionist Stormont majority unnerved many in the community, though as with the Brexit damage, Foster is more scapegoat than personally to blame. Alliance Party victories in several constituencies saw big drops in formerly hefty unionist votes while, at the other end of the spectrum, polling suggests ex-DUP votes for the tiny Traditional Unionist Voice of Jim Allister. Allister’s polished barrister version of “No Surrender” has helped unmoor Foster over the past year.

Meanwhile, on issues on which unionists demand a singular Ulster Britishness – abortion provision, same-sex marriage – plus the loyalist rioting that unionist politicians were over-eager to predict, Foster has stumbled by signalling simultaneous disquiet and moderation.

But in one basic respect northern politicians resemble those everywhere. On top of fundamental dislike of the power-sharing and north-south structures, DUP councillors, MLAs and some MPs want a new leader out of fear that Foster undermines their electoral prospects. They may well have miscalculated.

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