Why did Arlene Foster go to the Ulster GAA Final?
DUP leadership is increasingly uncomfortable with North’s reputation as a place apart
DUP leader Arlene Foster at the Ulster GAA Final: she is reaching out to people and groups who need to be reassured that the union and membership of the UK outweigh any other constitutional alternative. Photograph: James Crombie/INPHO
Two weeks ago Arlene Foster told her party executive: “It is clearly in unionism’s interests for those from all backgrounds in Northern Ireland to feel comfortable in a Northern Ireland at peace with itself. The surest way to cement the union is for Northern Ireland to be a warm home for everyone. We have a reputation for being the kindest and most welcoming people in the world. Yet, sometimes not always to those who live in the next street.”
A few days later she joined the local Muslim community to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the official ending of Ramadan. Last Sunday she became the first DUP leader to attend an Ulster GAA final, where she stood for the Irish national anthem. Later this week she will attend an LGBT event in Stormont (a reception organised by PinkNews) to “demonstrate my acknowledgment of that contribution and to recognise the reality of diversity among our citizens”. That’s a busy agenda for someone who once said that she didn’t “do” gesture politics.
The DUP needs Stormont up and running again. Their ongoing relationship with Theresa May’s government is a time-limited one
So, what is she up to? The problem with gesture politics in Northern Ireland is that most people assume that it’s about getting the choreography right for a new talks process. Within hours of Foster leaving the match, both Mary Lou McDonald and Karen Bradley – NI’s secretary of state – were hinting her visit had maybe made it a little easier to reboot the Executive and Assembly. And, of course, when unionists, particularly the DUP’s grassroots, hear those comments, it is inevitable that they begin to suspect that more concessions will be demanded from them at some point. In other words, they fear that Foster’s attendance at Eid al-Fitr, Clones and an LGBT event are part of an attempt to soften up unionism to accept an Irish Language Act, as well as reforms on same-sex marriage and abortion.
Earlier this month, Peter Robinson, Foster’s predecessor as first minister and DUP leader, gave his inaugural lecture as honorary professor in peace studies at Queen’s University Belfast. During the speech he focused on the importance of leadership and the need for a leader to take “ownership’” of a strategy and sell it across the party – irrespective of the risks involved. He was talking directly to Foster, of course. And she knew it. Her time as leader has not been a happy one and the best chance for recovery collapsed in chaos back in February, leaving the DUP/Sinn Féin relationship in tatters.
She has one last chance to repair the damage. The DUP needs Stormont up and running again. Their ongoing relationship with Theresa May’s government is a time-limited one, with no guarantee of a happy ending. The renewal heat incentive (RHI) inquiry – which still has months to run – is proving enormously embarrassing for them and inflicting huge damage on their previous reputation as the party that provided efficient government and excellent ministers.
Foster is, to all intents and purposes, a leader in name only; no Assembly sitting, no role of first minister for her, and all of the power resting with her 10 MPs at Westminster, many of whom have no particular regard for her. She has an Assembly team who fear that their careers could be over if a deal isn’t done soon. And, just three years from Northern Ireland’s centenary, the DUP needs a local institution they can promote and celebrate.
Foster can’t say so publicly, but the issue of Irish unity will also be weighing on her mind. A raft of recent polls have thrown up conflicting and contradictory statistics; some of which have pro-UK and pro-unity running almost neck and neck, while other figures suggest a very comfortable lead for pro-UK. But there is also clear evidence from all the polls that a “bad” Brexit would swing opinion to the Irish unity option: and while a Border poll still seems unlikely anytime soon, a significant shift away from the union could still damage the DUP’s vote at local elections. Foster will be particularly mindful that the last Assembly election robbed unionism of its overall majority – for the first time ever – as well as reducing the DUP’s lead over Sinn Féin to 1,200 votes and one seat. That’s much too close for comfort.
Foster’s gestures are not directed at Sinn Féin: there are no votes to be won there
Stasis does not suit the DUP. Nor does being regarded as the party that still likes to say a very emphatic no to everything. The DUP’s leadership is increasingly uncomfortable with Northern Ireland’s reputation as a “place apart”. They know that some of the party’s evangelical grassroots – who have been there since the party was founded in 1971 – will be happy enough with that position; but that’s an elderly demographic, while the bulk of the DUP’s vote is now of a more liberal disposition. They can cope with change.
Foster’s gestures are not directed at Sinn Féin: there are no votes to be won there. But what she seems to be doing – and it’s the right thing to do – is reaching out to people and groups who need to be reassured that the union and membership of the United Kingdom outweigh any other constitutional alternative. That said, one of the rocks upon which the UK is built is equality of citizenship. So it won’t be enough for her to tell a gay couple that she values their individual contribution to Northern Ireland: she also needs to assure them that the rights they would enjoy in Great Britain will, in future, also be enjoyed in Northern Ireland. That will require real leadership and personal risks from her. It will require more than gestures.
Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast. He was formerly director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party