Whoever briefed against Arlene Foster this week has a mischievous sense of timing. The DUP leader was meeting Michael Barnier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, in Brussels on Tuesday morning. At precisely the same time, BBC Radio Ulster's Stephen Nolan show was leading with exclusive comments from an unnamed "senior" DUP politician, who claimed a Stormont deal had been drafted last month with Sinn Féin.
The DUP’s explanation for pulling out of that agreement at the last minute is that there cannot have been a deal because a deal was not done – a lawyer’s defence that has left the public cold.
Nolan's DUP source added no more detail, but tried to drop more people in it, most notably the party's deputy leader Nigel Dodds, who the source alleged was in the room when the draft was handed to Sinn Féin – a claim the DUP strongly denies.
However, the main target was inevitably Foster as leader of the party and the DUP’s talks team. Since first denying a month ago that agreement had been reached, she has become increasingly entrapped by verbal gymnastics. Nolan’s dissection of the meaning of “draft” forced Foster to spend most of her day in Brussels performing further semantic somersaults.
Nobody could miss the parallel with last December, when Foster ruined UK prime minister Theresa May’s day in Brussels by delaying the draft Brexit agreement. That humiliation has been returned – but by whom and to what end?
Foster and Dodds between them cover so many of the DUP’s internal bases that briefing against both points to a relative outsider. DUP politicians break ranks rarely enough for Nolan’s scoop to be newsworthy and to attract guaranteed attention, but in this instance it does not herald an imminent putsch or even announce the intentions of a faction. What it reveals is that someone well-placed to know decided now is the time to strike.
It is unclear if the person briefing against Foster objected to her doing a deal with Sinn Féin or failing to do a deal – but that may be irrelevant, even to them
One point to emerge definitively from the Stormont talks is that Sinn Féin has no objection to Foster returning as first minister. After Stormont’s collapse, when Foster’s recusal from office was supposedly a republican red line, the DUP insisted it could not let a rival party dictate who it would nominate to lead the executive. That issue of pride has evaporated, leaving Foster to be judged on her merits, which have turned out to be few and far between.
The collapse of the talks puts the restoration of Stormont back by months if not years, rendering Foster – an Assembly member – a lame duck for the duration.
The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry – the original reason Sinn Féin told the DUP leader to step aside – is due to summon Foster after Easter. This is likely to cause her significant embarrassment.
DUP support falling
The DUP had a superb Westminster election last June, recovering from the shock of its Assembly result three months previously when it was almost beaten by Sinn Féin. That had been an unanswerable riposte to Foster’s internal critics. However, a poll published this Monday, and conducted in late February after the Stormont talks fiasco, shows DUP support falling while Sinn Féin’s continues to rise – both parties are once again neck and neck, and Foster’s main achievement appears undone.
It is unclear if the person briefing against Foster objected to her doing a deal with Sinn Féin or failing to do a deal – but that may be irrelevant, even to them.
The deal was so unquestionably mishandled, in terms of keeping DUP members and supporters informed, that this alone would be reason enough to want a change of leadership. Frankly, anyone else might be an improvement.
Once authority starts ebbing away like this, it tends to vanish abruptly
Foster retains the benefit of no obvious successor – Dodds does not want the job – but that is such a poor reason on its own to leave her in place that less obvious successors must be coming into the frame.
The DUP has never held a leadership contest: all three leaders in its history have been self-appointed or anointed. If someone was inclined towards disruptive creativity they might see the advantage of a proper debate on Foster’s replacement.
One swallow does not make a summer, but the Nolan show source has not been alone. In a magazine interview also published this week, loyalist leader Jackie McDonald gave a plausible account of being briefed by the DUP on Irish language legislation in a Stormont deal. His contempt for the DUP leadership was painfully apparent. Foster had to address that in Brussels as well.
Last weekend the political editor of the Irish News speculated on Foster's survival to an extent not previously seen in the media.
There is the sense of a dam breaking and, even more disastrously, of ridicule. Foster’s strangulated denials of the deal that never was have descended into farce, and in her persistence she has all the gravitas of an angry rabbit in the headlights.
Once authority starts ebbing away like this, it tends to vanish abruptly.