DUP MLAs cheer Foster in show of party strength

Arlene Foster with her MLAs at Stormont yesterday
Arlene Foster with her MLAs at Stormont yesterday

DUP MLAs stood around Arlene Foster in Stormont’s Great Hall and cheered after she met them as a group for the first time after last week’s dreadful election result for unionism.

Flanked by the MLAs and by deputy leader Nigel Dodds, Mrs Foster pronounced herself “delighted” by the support which she had received at the meeting yesterday morning.

Last night one DUP MLA rounded on MP Ian Paisley, who had called for “humble pie” in the wake of last week’s election result. East Londonderry MLA Maurice Bradley tweeted a message to the News Letter to say: “I think Mr Paisley would need to take his own advice. It is clear he is out on a limb here and does not speak for me.”

The News Letter understands that despite disquiet across a swathe of the party the planned attempt to take on the key DUP Spad, Timothy Johnston, failed to materialise.

Earlier this week, multiple internal sources expressed alarm about Mr Johnston’s role in the campaign and the power which he now wields, with one DUP source describing him as the de facto First Minister.

Emerging in Stormont’s Great Hall after the meeting, Mrs Foster said to cheers from many MLAs: “I’m delighted with the support that I’ve received from all of my colleagues today and of course it’s now about going in and getting a good deal – not just for unionism – but for all of the people of Northern Ireland; that’s what we’re focussed on.

“We’re focussed on the restoration of devolution and making sure that we have that ability for the people of Northern Ireland.”

She added: “We have had an excellent group meeting where we had a full and open discussion around the election campaign, the result and, of course, the negotiations that are going on at the moment.”

At lunch time yesterday, Mr Paisley again spoke about the need for fundamental changes in how unionism operates.

However, he appeared to step away from some of the rhetoric of the previous day about Mrs Foster. Instead, Mr Paisley told BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme that Mrs Foster has his full support and has the ability to implement the changes he wants to see in terms of how unionism presents itself.

Mr Paisley also endorsed the comments of traditionalist DUP founding member Wallace Thompson who spoke out the previous day to warn that the party’s tactics constantly linking Sinn Fein to the IRA are being counterproductive.

Mr Thompson, a key figure at evangelical pressure group the Caleb Foundation and a former special adviser to Nigel Dodds, said that unionists needed to “accept the implications” of Sinn Fein’s increasing support and realise that the tactics employed by the DUP during the campaign of seeking to regularly link Sinn Fein to the IRA had not worked.

Yesterday Mr Paisley said: “I agree with Wallace..we have a very attractive case to present and I have been guilty, as a unionist, of presenting it in a rough and combative way over the years when I thought it was required to do that”.

Meanwhile, Stormont’s parties have agreed to put back the election of a new Assembly Speaker.

The Assembly will meet for the first time on Monday, when MLAs will publicly sign the register as members.

However, that will not be followed by the election of the Assembly Speaker.

Robin Newton – the incumbent, but who is not expected to stand for re-election – will therefore remain in post for at least another two weeks until 27 March.

TUV leader Jim Allister yesterday criticised the move, saying that the Assembly was going to “bend the rules by postponing election of Speaker”, despite Standing Orders stating that when MLAs sign in as members (next Monday) the Assembly “shall proceed” to elect a Speaker.

The decision about who will be Speaker is unusually tricky because the major parties may not want the role.

If the DUP gives up one of its 28 MLAs for the post, it will be three signatures short of being able to trigger a Petition of Concern, while if the Speaker comes from any of the unionist members it would mean that unionism and nationalism would be on an equal number of Assembly seats – 39.

Similarly, Sinn Fein and the SDLP may not want to give up an MLA due to the tight arithmetic between unionism and nationalism.

Names mentioned for the post include Alliance’s David Ford, the SDLP’s John Dallat, the UUP’s Mike Nesbitt and Roy Beggs – but it is not clear whether any of those individuals want the post or if their parties would permit them to take it.

A spokeswoman for the Assembly said: “The Speaker met party whips and a representative of the smaller parties today to make arrangements for the first sitting of the Assembly following the recent election.

“The Speaker also asked parties for a consensus on what further business would be undertaken by the Assembly and when. On the basis of having received a unanimous view, an Order Paper has issued to Members this afternoon for the preliminary business of Members taking their seats to be conducted on Monday 13th March 2017.

“The Speaker will hold a further meeting with whips in advance of the next sitting of the Assembly on 27 March 2017 when the Assembly will proceed to its first business, beginning with the election of a Speaker and Deputy Speakers.”