Arlene Foster is still in a political honeymoon and should spend the time wisely

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

It’s no wonder the DUP was in buoyant mood on Saturday.

After what had been a very difficult couple of years (Nama, the stand-off with Sinn Fein over welfare, IRA-linked killings, a report suggesting the IRA Army Council still influenced Sinn Fein, the in-out farce with the serial resignation of ministers, increasing internal restlessness about Peter Robinson’s leadership and concerns about a potential electoral recovery by the UUP) the Assembly election proved to be a triumph.

Some 70,000 more votes than the other unionist parties combined, an increased lead over Sinn Fein and Arlene Foster looking like mistress of all she surveyed.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t huge challenges ahead for the DUP – particularly Brexit – but it does mean that she doesn’t have to be overly concerned about pressure from her unionist rivals.

While Jim Allister remains a formidable force in his own right he doesn’t have the structures or numbers to damage her.

The PUP has to sort out its own role, agenda and machinery. Ukip, in terms of electoral appeal and influence – is dead in Northern Ireland. The local Conservatives were barely ever alive.

And the UUP grassroots are despondent again: the confidence they had this time last year has evaporated.

A coherent opposition would worry both the DUP and Sinn Fein, but it’s beginning to look like there may be real problems in establishing that coherence.

It was also interesting to note Foster’s comments during her speech: “It is important that the new opposition arrangements are not just a one term wonder but become part of the fabric of our emerging constitutional set-up. That’s why over the course of this Assembly I would like to see legislation passed to make government and opposition the norm, not the exception.”

That sounds to me – although maybe I’m being too cynical – that she plans to make it much more difficult for the UUP and SDLP to get back in the Executive in 2021.

Something else she plans to do is prepare Northern Ireland for its centenary in 2021.

She wants to focus minds on the fact that it still exists after decades of turmoil; and she also wants to focus minds on the ‘fact’ that its continued existence can only be secured and guaranteed by a strong, united unionism under the leadership of the DUP.

That’s why she walked on to the stage to the strain of ‘We Are Family’ and why she spoke of the red-carpet welcome that the DUP gives to all new members and defectors including, of course, the one it gave to her in January 2004.

She has her eye on all the unionist parties; but she also has at least a couple of Alliance people in her sight too.

The most surreal aspect of the DUP conference was the number of people I met who I first met in the UUP years ago.

And just look at how well many of them have done. Some have become councillors. Some MLAs. Some MPs. Some Executive ministers. Some key figures in the leadership, press office, advisory and constituency teams.

Arlene herself is now leader and first minister. But it does raise an interesting historical question: Did the DUP rise to electoral dominance after 1998 because it deliberately head-hunted key figures within the UUP at that time who were unhappy with David Trimble?

During the Good Friday Agreement referendum in 1998 the DUP had spoken of ‘wrecking’ the agreement and ‘rendering unworkable’ the new Assembly. Yet within a year the DUP had shifted to the language of a ‘fair deal’ and making the agreement work better.

It was language aimed as much at UUP ‘malcontents’ as at its own grassroots: and isn’t it interesting that Mike Nesbitt is now talking about his own ‘malcontents’ – at the very time the DUP is targeting a new generation of UUP defectors?

What also struck me about her speech was the absence of any mention of Sinn Fein. She talked about the tough decisions, uncomfortable decisions that the Executive would have to make, but made it sound like she, alone, would be making them. In her opening remarks she said: “Just twelve months ago Northern Ireland was a byword for political crisis and instability, devolution was in crisis, Stormont was teetering on the brink...”

But now all is well, it seems, thanks to Arlene and the DUP.

Not a single word about Sinn Fein. Not a single mention of their new relationship in the Executive. Not a single word about how Arlene and Martin – now assisted by David Gordon – have been doing so much to help each other and protect each other’s backs.

It was like that scene in Fawlty Towers (almost as old as Steptoe and Son!) when an increasingly manic Basil keeps saying, “Don’t mention the war”.

It was a good first conference for her as leader and one of the most upbeat conferences the party has ever had. She has ensured that some of the more vulgar, slightly unpleasant aspects have been removed. What she wants to do is present the image of a broad, cosmopolitan, open-to-all party. She wants to recruit and build. She wants to win over another tranche of UUP voters.

That said, she cannot continue to pretend that Sinn Fein don’t exist, don’t have a veto on key decisions and won’t make life difficult for her at some point.

She is still enjoying a political honeymoon: she must use the time wisely.