In his contribution to our election supplement, Sam McBride recaps on the dramatic context of this sudden poll:
Arlene Foster’s ascent to what seemed an unassailable position and then her sudden ejection from office based on an obscure situation from her past has been extraordinary to behold.
It is not yet ten months since a supremely confident Mrs Foster led the DUP to what was a stunning electoral triumph, given the state in which she inherited the party just five months earlier.
With a five-year term ahead of her and without the distraction of another electoral test of any sort for another three years, Northern Ireland’s first female leader had the sort of opportunity most political leaders never get to see.
Yet now she could be just days from the end of her leadership of the DUP. Win or lose, this is Arlene’s Election.
The drastic possibility of Mrs Foster being ousted is far from certain and rests largely in the hands of the electorate – and then the reaction of her DUP colleagues.
It may be that the former Ulster Unionist will again trounce her opponents at the polls; it could even be that she comes back politically stronger, as Peter Robinson did after scandal in 2010.
But there are hints that some in the DUP are becoming alarmed that their leader has lost the panache which charmed unionists – and led plenty of nationalists to believe that she would preside over a new era which was gradually moving Northern Ireland beyond past deadlock.
Now Mrs Foster is running a campaign which is overtly green and orange, the overwhelming DUP message focusing not on the party’s policies or its record in government but on “stopping Gerry Adams’ radical republican agenda”.
Mrs Foster’s extraordinary refusal to not take any questions at the DUP’s manifesto launch on Monday (ostensibly because she had the cold, although she had just delivered a 20-minute speech) was the culmination of a series of nervy media performances.
The apprehension on show that day would have been unthinkable ten months ago.
The campaign was framed around her to an extent which had not been seen since the days of Ian Paisley. DUP literature talked about “Arlene’s team” and “Arlene’s candidates”, her picture was everywhere and the DUP pushed her forward at every opportunity.
She was a genuinely popular unionist leader in whom old DUP voters, traditional UUP supporters, social conservatives, rural unionists, professionals, business people and Troubles victims saw something of themselves.
Despite Sinn Fein’s claim now that they could not work with the DUP because of an arrogance and absence of respect in Stormont Castle, the evidence supports Mrs Foster’s contention that up until mid-December the two old foes were working together fairly harmoniously – in fact, closer than ever before.
Facing for the first time a Stormont opposition, they even agreed on the appointment of senior journalist David Gordon as the joint messenger for what was to be their joint message – a move which in itself an extraordinary signal of their intent.
Although Sinn Fein now retrospectively draws in all manner of grievances – from Brexit to an Irish language act – the party was working closely with the DUP; in fact, too closely for many of its grassroots supporters.
But that all fell apart as the RHI scandal developed in the wake of Conor Spackman’s forensic December 6 BBC Spotlight explanation of how £500 million was set to be wasted because of a scheme designed on Mrs Foster’s watch.
The DUP leader was in China at that point, far away from Martin McGuinness who had pulled out of the trip the previous week as – unknown to the wider world – his health deteriorated.
Perhaps that distance both from Northern Ireland, where the situation was increasingly the only topic of conversation even among those with barely a passing interest in politics, and from her government partner contributed to Mrs Foster’s defiant response.
Giving her first reaction to UTV’s Tracey Magee, who was with her in China, on the day after the Spotlight programme, Mrs Foster did not accept any responsibility for the disastrous scheme and said: “There really isn’t anything more with hindsight that I could have done, given the advice that was given to me at the time.” Days later and back in Belfast, she was interviewed by the BBC’s political editor, Mark Devenport. Afterwards, he summed up her mood as “pretty determined and unapologetic”.
Even after that, Sinn Fein was remaining in government with Mrs Foster. It was only after former DUP minister Jonathan Bell broke ranks to make allegations on December 15 that Sinn Fein’s stance hardened to the point of “advising” Mrs Foster to temporarily stand aside – itself a soft landing which would have seen her back in office after a slightly extended Christmas holiday.
By then, having decided on a strident tone, Mrs Foster dug her heels in, seemingly never thinking that Sinn Fein would ultimately follow through on its rhetorical threats.
But, as revelation after revelation emerged about Mrs Foster’s personal culpability for aspects of the RHI scheme (though she insists she always followed officials’ recommendations), and Martin McGuinness’s health rapidly waned, the DUP leader found herself unceremoniously ousted from office by republicans – who in doing so proved the joint nature of Stormont’s top two ministers – on December 16.
Since early December, Mrs Foster has increasingly become a Thatcher-esque hate figure for nationalists, her hardline rhetoric on the Irish language adding to their fury at her stance on the RHI debacle. It is probably the case that just as the DUP exaggerated her abilities, now her opponents exaggerate her flaws.
One of the factors which works helps her in this election is that the UUP are simply not in the position of the DUP in 2003 when they eclipsed the UUP. This election has probably come too soon for Mike Nesbitt’s flegling opposition (though that may be to the benefit of the more established opposition voice of Jim Allister) and his comments about voting for the SDLP have given DUP canvassers a spring in their step.
Mrs Foster’s perceived lack of contrition for what was – at best – monumental failure by the department for which she is democratically accountable is a grander version of the lack of accountability at many levels of the Stormont system.
But Sinn Fein’s enthusiastic attempt to push her out could see republicans dealing with a less agreeable partner such as Edwin Poots, Nigel Dodds or Sammy Wilson.
If Mrs Foster does survive this career-defining crisis, where will she lead the DUP?
If Sinn Fein can be persuaded to work with her again, the experience of Peter Robinson may be instructive.
Mr Robinson returned from scandal and the humiliating loss of his MP seat with a zeal born of his brush with political death. He attempted to prove that at heart he actually wasn’t the unionist hardliner who flirted with paramilitaries during the Troubles but rather a more nuanced and complex politician concerned about the “benign apartheid” of segregated education.
If she survives, might Mrs Foster, simplistically caricatured by Sinn Fein as an Orange bigot, move in a similar direction after March 2?