Analysis: Foster’s rise makes unionist unity more plausible than ever

Arlene Foster earlier this year with Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott ahead of the joint unionist bid to win the Fermanagh and Sth Tyrone Westminster seat
Arlene Foster earlier this year with Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott ahead of the joint unionist bid to win the Fermanagh and Sth Tyrone Westminster seat

Over the next few months as the intra-unionist battle intensifies ahead of May’s Assembly election, new DUP leader Arlene Foster may not seem like a unifying figure between the two major unionist parties.

But the DUP’s elevation of a former Ulster Unionist without the baggage of Ian Paisley or Peter Robinson means that the recreation of a single dominant unionist party is arguably closer than at any point since the emergence of the DUP more than four decades ago.

Mrs Foster’s first speech after being confirmed as DUP leader on Thursday night studiously avoided any battle with her former party.

The UUP responded tersely yesterday with a perfunctory 42-word statement of congratulation on her promotion.

The new DUP leader’s speech could have been written for Mr Robinson in his pre-flag protest ‘liberal’ phase where he spoke of the “benign apartheid” of segregated education and said he wanted to make the DUP appealing to Catholic voters. Yet the personality delivering it made the message more credible.

Tellingly, Mrs Foster’s only reference to religion – for many people, the defining characteristic of the old DUP – was in a coded repetition of Mr Robinson’s appeal to Catholics, when she said: “I also want people of all religious persuasions, from all social backgrounds to make this party their home”.

Though both Dr Paisley and Mr Robinson came to lead unionism, neither were ever able to seriously contemplate leading a single unified party akin to the old Unionist Party.

Although Mr Robinson proposed it for a while and it would have left him a grander legacy than that which he leaves, the bitterness of their attacks on the UUP meant that the prospect of either man leading a single party was as unappealing to UUP members as the possibility of David Trimble would be to DUP members.

Although there is still bad blood – particularly in Fermanagh – between Mrs Foster and her former party, it is nothing like that between past DUP leaders and the UUP.

She has shown that she can work with her former party and by all accounts did so in a straightforward manner when the two parties combined to see Tom Elliott elected in May.

Crucially, UUP members know that Mrs Foster’s values are much closer to their own. Where they viewed Dr Paisley as a splitter not averse to setting up near paramilitary groups and Mr Robinson as the man who once thought it a good idea to invade Clontibret, Mrs Foster is very different.

With her as leader, now the major differences between the parties centre on two areas: style, where the DUP is seen as more aggressive, and ‘moral issues’, where the DUP adopts a socially conservative position.

Already, in the final months of Mr Robinson’s leadership, he signalled that he would be happy for MLAs to have free votes on issues such as gay marriage and abortion – effectively meaning that the party would have no policy, and mirroring the UUP position.

If Mrs Foster follows though on that huge change, it will be another significant step towards integrating the party in which she learnt the political trade with the party which was willing to more quickly recognise and reward her talent.

UUP members know that in different circumstances Mrs Foster could still be in the UUP and could even be their leader.

Though not obvious, that might yet happen.

Arlene Foster platform see page 20