Foster repeatedly declines to rule out briefly stepping aside as First Minister

DUP Leader Arlene Foster
DUP Leader Arlene Foster

The DUP has appeared to stress its willingness to compromise in order to resurrect Stormont – with Arlene Foster even declining to rule out the possibility of her standing aside as first minister for a brief period.

As it launched its manifesto yesterday, the party again said that it had no red lines for the talks which will resume just days after next Thursday’s poll.

However, Mrs Foster tempered that apparent enthusiasm for striking a deal with Sinn Fein with the comment that “for me, the most important issue at this election is not devolution but the Union itself”.

The party talked up its influence at Westminster, where power will reside in the absence of Stormont.

The DUP is attempting to frame the election as a dual contest – firstly between an under pressure unionism and a resurgent nationalism and then between parties such as itself which are prepared to immediately return to Stormont and Sinn Fein which will not do so unless various preconditions are met.

Since January, Sinn Fein has consistently demanded – and has done so again this week – that Mrs Foster cannot be first minister while the RHI inquiry is ongoing, something which could take as long as two years.

Mrs Foster has repeatedly rejected that call and said that it is outrageous of Sinn Fein to attempt to say who would be acceptable as the DUP’s nominee for such a position.

When asked by the News Letter if she was prepared to stand aside for a single day or whether she would say clearly that she is not prepared to allow anyone else to perform the duties of first minister, Mrs Foster’s answer did not explicitly rule out such a compromise.

She said: “We were told that we had to go to the people because of all the things that had happened and the people had to have their say. The people had their say. The people had their say and the DUP is still the largest party in the Assembly. It is therefore for the DUP as a party to decide who will be first minister.”

At that point, there was loud applause from the DUP candidates and members in the old court house in Antrim, where the manifesto was being launched. She went on: “I find it rather ironic to hear John O’Dowd speak about choosing our nominee for first minister when he didn’t even get to vote for his nominee for deputy first minister.”

When it was put to Mrs Foster that her answer did not rule out standing aside for a single day, she said: “I know you always try to read into things that I don’t say, as you did on the last occasion. But let me be very, very clear. It is for the Democratic Unionist Party, of which I am the leader, to decide who will be the first minister – not anyone from Sinn Fein. The people of Northern Ireland have made their view very clear.”

Mrs Foster said that the public was “frustrated” that “we are talking about these sorts of issues instead of having the Assembly and Executive up and running again”.

Those answers appear to leave open a semantic solution to the impasse whereby Mrs Foster could of her own choosing decide to step aside for a brief period

That suggestion was first put forward by one of Mrs Foster’s candidates in this election, Gavin Robinson, just two days after March’s election when he said: “I’m not ruling it out on the basis that if it was a decision for Arlene to take and one she made herself then the party would discuss that and consider it.”

Later during yesterday’s manifesto launch, the issue was picked up by Seamus McKee of the BBC who asked Mrs Foster why she was not saying that the issue of her being first minister was a red line for the DUP in the talks.

Mrs Foster responded that it was a “manufactured demand” and Mr Dodds said that red lines were about what a party would demand, adding: “You don’t start putting down red lines about everything that you won’t accept or you won’t do or whatever – you don’t get into the negatives.” He added: “We’re not setting any red lines.”

Asked again by Mr McKee if the party would answer the question, Mr Dodds said

“It’s a good try, but we’ve already answered that question,” at which point the DUP members cheered and applauded.

Mrs Foster said that the DUP “have the right to choose who will be the first minister”, highlighting that she was not telling Sinn Fein who could be deputy first minister. She said that she had been chosen to be the DUP leader “and that’s the end of the matter”.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said yesterday: “What I would say to Sinn Fein and others who talk about these issues that have been raised about Arlene’s position and about other issues – if you really do believe that Brexit is so important...if you believe that health and education are the most important issues, which they are, why on earth would you hold up devolution getting restored on other more trivial issues?”