Analysis: Who’s the real Arlene Foster and where will she lead?

Arlene Foster at The Royal Ulster Agricultural Society Winter Show on December 10
Arlene Foster at The Royal Ulster Agricultural Society Winter Show on December 10

Five years ago, Arlene Foster contributed an article to a News Letter series of essays about how unionism should look towards 2021, the centenary of Northern Ireland’s creation.

Looking back at old e-mails this week, I was reminded that I had passed it on to my then-editor with the comment: “A big clue of where the party would go if she were leader.”

Five years later, that day has all-but arrived.

The extreme secrecy around the appointment (a week ago, Mrs Foster had not even declared that she wanted the job), means that few leaders have assumed control of their parties with such scant public indication of the direction in which they will lead.

Although Mrs Foster was a prominent figure in the UUP and has been a DUP minister for eight years, she has been a fairly technocratic politician; largely getting on with the business of government, rather than a Boris Johnson or Sammy Wilson figure who is constantly wading into big, ideological debates.

As a minister, she has been highly competent and that is why DUP members – and, crucially, Peter Robinson – now trust her to lead the party.

But some of those DUP members are fairly uncertain as to where exactly she will lead them.

Five years ago, in her essay for the News Letter’s Union 2021 series, Mrs Foster gave clues about the answer to a question which many have this week been asking: Is the Anglican former-Ulster Unionist a fairly moderate unionist, or is she actually much closer to the ‘old DUP’ of Ian Paisley?

She wrote: “Our task for 2021 and beyond is to build a new shining city on the hill.

“A city built on the values of excellence, enterprise, family, limited government and tolerance.

“A gateway into this city will be the Ulster Protestant identity but it will not be the only one.

“The mistake civic/liberal unionists make is that they believe they can build a new city upon exclusion of those who come to unionism on the basis of identity. They are wrong.

“They wrongly present people’s political choices as one-dimensional. Unionism will be its most successful when all its gateways are open and it has a message that aims to attract the greatest number to the cause of the greater good.

“Unionism can have a breadth and depth to it that can make it relevant to more people than the narrowness and restrictiveness of Irish nationalism.”

The logic of Mrs Foster’s argument was clear – unionism has to be a broad church, embracing those from many backgrounds.

Yet the metaphor which she used was a Biblical one, and therefore one to which more traditional DUP members are instinctively more open.

She went on to say: “Unionist unity can help deliver such a vision. The idea of the new city is an inclusive one.

“It is an idea that a credible and sustainable broad church could be built around. It can create space for unionism to adopt new approaches.”

The caveat to all of this is that Mrs Foster has been remarkably loyal to Peter Robinson – to the point where it is difficult to think of a single issue on which they have publicly disagreed – and five years ago Mr Robinson was pushing two themes: a more open DUP and unionist unity.

Does Mrs Foster want to see a DUP which moves from its founding principles of ultra-conservative Protestantism to embrace all shades of pro-Union opinion or was she, out of loyalty, expressing support for her leader’s strategy?

Some commentators and some in the DUP believe that as an Anglican, a former Ulster Unionist and a woman Mrs Foster will be a radical , break with what has gone before.

But the Fermanagh & South Tyrone MLA’s exceptional loyalty to Mr Robinson means it is very difficult to know whether she will – as she has intimated – make very few changes, or whether beneath the surface she has been waiting to make key changes, but has been unable to do so until reaching the top.

When David Trimble became UUP leader two decades ago – and that was after a very public contest – he was elected as a hardliner. Within a few years no-one was describing him in those terms.

With no contest and a fairly discreet political past, Mrs Foster’s leadership will, for the foreseeable future, carry a certain enigmatic quality.