Forging a working relationship with Sinn Fein is Foster’s biggest challenge

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

Tomorrow, January 5, will be the 12th anniversary of Arlene Foster’s joining the DUP. She became leader of the party on December 17, the eve of the 12th anniversary of her resignation from the UUP in December 2003. This time next week she will be First Minister: not as a stand-in for Peter Robinson, but in her own right.

Not bad progress for someone who, according to a key player in Fermanagh/South Tyrone at the time, “…will be toast in a few months. The DUP want her to make up the numbers, that’s all, and she’ll never hold her seat next time round because unionists down there will never forgive her betrayal”.

I have a lot of time for Arlene Foster. We’re rarely on the same side of any debate, but I’ve always admired her ability to deconstruct an argument and present a thought-through alternative to it.

When she left the UUP I wrote a piece suggesting that she and the others weren’t joining the DUP because they wanted to wreck the Belfast Agreement: rather, they were joining the DUP because they believed that was now the only way of strengthening the Agreement and creating the circumstances in which unionism and Sinn Fein could work together.

The mistake made by some of Trimble’s supporters was to assume that people like Donaldson, Foster, Peter Weir – along with other members of the so-called ‘baby barristers’ and the ginger group Union First – were anti-Agreement, full stop. Many of them weren’t: many of them accepted that power-sharing with Sinn Fein was the inevitable price of restoring devolution.

Their concern with Trimble was that he wasn’t playing a tough enough game. In other words, it was never about destroying the Assembly, let alone the Agreement; it was about addressing and answering the criticisms levelled against the UUP by Paisley, Robinson, Bob McCartney and its own internal critics.

In a number of columns for the News Letter at the time I made those points, causing a few of Trimble’s inner circle to say that I “might be more comfortable with Jeffrey and Arlene”.

So it wasn’t a huge surprise to me when Arlene and others left the UUP. They were being ignored by former colleagues, kept out of the loop on key aspects of policy and treated as ‘the enemy’.

Peter Robinson headhunted them because he knew three things about them: they weren’t anti-agreement (and neither was he); they had identified the problems that the leadership of the UUP was slow to deal with; and, most important, they were still popular across a broad swathe of the UUP.

She, Donaldson, Peter Weir, Jonathan Bell, Simon Hamilton and others have done well in the DUP – probably better than they would have done in the UUP. Yet it is a crucial mistake to say that they are now doing in the DUP what they used to criticise the UUP for doing. Sinn Fein is not the same party it was between 1998 and 2005 and that’s mostly to do with the fact that the DUP pushed it time after time on key issues. And, unlike the UUP (even after Foster et al had departed), the DUP always moved one way and at the same time. Nesbitt has certainly steadied the ship in the last 18 months, but still has a lot to prove.

But it is also true – as I have pointed out before – that Robinson failed to solve the central problem at the heart of the DUP/Sinn Fein relationship; namely, that they rarely if ever pulled together. Which meant that there were too many occasions when he found himself in precisely the same dilemma as Trimble – stuck.

That is Foster’s biggest challenge. It’s not just enough for the DUP to remain bigger than Sinn Fein and see off the threat of a confident UUP (both of which I think she will do): she also has to prove that she can work with Sinn Fein and make joint decisions on a wide array of policies and initiatives. Their joint ownership and promotion of Fresh Start suggests that there’s a willingness now that there wasn’t before: but are they brave enough to set out joint approaches in their Assembly manifestos?

The best response to the criticism that they shore up their own axis and do their own deals is to sell it as the best way of getting things done and then list the things they will do after the election. Everyone knows that government requires the nod of approval from the biggest unionist and nationalist parties, so they may as well acknowledge that fact and agree to work together.

The smaller parties will refer to the ‘IRA Army Council’ problem and try and gain electoral traction. But they probably won’t come up with a solution to it. The UUP says it will publish its own Programme for Government soon, so maybe it will set out its solution in the event that it eclipses the DUP and has to cut its own deal with Sinn Fein?

What most people want to see is good government. They want an Executive that can make joint decisions and an Assembly capable of rigorous debate and scrutiny. They want signs of progress. They want an end to serial crises and impasse. Sinn Fein and the DUP are calculating that they will be the key players again – so why don’t they fight the election on that basis? A bit of honesty from both of them is required at this point: as it is from the UUP and SDLP.