It’s hard to know what the DUP is about anymore
Arlene Foster does not seem to have contributed to the welfare of the North for a long time
Arlene Foster has failed to lead her party back to power-sharing, and how ironic, given her expressed concerns about nationalism, that she should make common cause with cheerleading nationalists in the Conservative Party. Photograph: Getty Images
Spare a thought for the cattle of Northern Ireland during this fraught Brexit era? There was a moment in August 2007, during the good old days of power-sharing and first minister Ian Paisley’s chuckling, when Northern cows were seen as symbolic of Ulster’s self-determination and self-reliance. During an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in southern England, Paisley sought to reassure those worried about the threat to Ulster farmers by declaring there was “clear blue sea” between Britain and Northern Ireland.
There still is, but not in the mind, it seems, of Arlene Foster who has cut an increasingly pitiful figure of late, whether sitting icily at the inquiry into the botched Renewable Heat Incentive scheme which led to the collapse of North’s power-sharing, or dancing to the deranged tune of Boris Johnson, he of fantasy bridge across the sea fame.
Foster’s latest trick was to insist that the Belfast Agreement could be altered to suit the kind of Brexit the DUP wants; to hell, the logic goes, with the majority in the North who did not vote for Brexit, and to hell, while she’s at it, with the framework for the peace process.
Foster was loud in her insistence after the Brexit vote that suggestions it could damage the peace process were “outrageous commentary”. Yet now she seeks to undermine it herself.
The difficulties of managing the peace process have always been apparent, but Foster and her colleagues did very nicely out of it despite their fulminating against it.
The delusion that the North cannot and should not be treated differently from the rest of the UK continues for the DUP even though their words and actions at various stages have indicated quite the opposite. While the party railed against the Belfast Agreement, the St Andrews Agreement it agreed to eight years later was hardly much different in constitutional terms.
What entitles the DUP to, in Foster’s words, a “red line” that is “blood red”; another obnoxious and irresponsible use of language?
Why persist with the nonsense that there cannot be “a differential between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK?”
Internal British concern
Following the Brexit referendum the DUP rejected an invitation to cross the Border to join a “civic forum” convened by the Irish Government. It insisted that the issues at stake were an internal British concern, ignoring that the very agreements that allowed it to be the dominant party in the former power-sharing executive were driven by the acceptance that the North required special consideration, and that its constitutional arrangements needed to be worked out through partnership between North and South and London and Dublin.
In relation to her defection from the UUP to the DUP in 2004, Foster recalled, in an interview with Alex Kane of the Belfast Telegraph in 2015: “The DUP has evolved and grown over the years, and, as Dr Paisley himself used to say, the DUP is a political party, not a church. I found a vibrancy in the DUP that didn’t exist in the UUP, and a real and genuine support and interest for the individual”.
She also insisted in that interview “we must be vigilant against nationalism at a national level as well as here, locally. The union is a very positive ideal, and we must promote it as such.”
Where lies the vibrancy of the DUP now? And is support for the “individual” solely about party members?
Foster does not seem for a long time to have contributed to the welfare of the North. She has failed to lead her party back to power-sharing, and how ironic, given her expressed concerns about nationalism, that she should make common cause with cheerleading nationalists in the Conservative Party.
Just what is the DUP about at this juncture? The only empirical study of the party to date, The DUP: From Protest to Power (2014) by Liverpool-based political scientist Jonathan Tonge and others, is based on a membership survey, and included the observation of MLA Paul Girvan “if you use the Ten Commandments you can formulate almost every law you want”.
Yet the book suggested it would be a mistake to see the party as fossilised as it was changing slowly. Such evolution, however, seems to have collapsed due to ineffective leadership and the weight of Brexit with a contradictory DUP stance demanding a “seamless” or “frictionless” Border while at the same time insisting there cannot be a special deal for the North to make that happen.
What Brexit has also underlined is how germane another finding in Tonge’s book remains: four-fifths of DUP members believed the Irish government should have “no say at all” in the North. This is how the DUP has conveniently and arrogantly managed its politics; embracing, in the fullest sense, the spoils of office when available, while seeking to ignore both the content of the agreements that got them there, and the clear blue Irish Sea.