Alex Kane: Arlene Foster is just one of many problems for the DUP

Here’s a truth that isn’t universally acknowledged, let alone recognised: if every single unionist in Northern Ireland had voted Remain there would still have been a Leave majority and we would still have faced the same challenges.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 16th December 2019, 1:00 pm

Ironically, our problem has never been with the Irish government (which, like every government, will prioritise its own interests), or Irish nationalism in Northern Ireland (which was always going to grab an unexpected ‘England’s problem is Ireland’s opportunity’ moment): our problem is with the emergence of a form of English nationalism which doesn’t really give a fiddle’s about the other parts of the United Kingdom. And worryingly, Boris Johnson (with the support of Dominic Cummings and elements of the Brexit Party) has pandered to that particular nationalism.

Mind you, I think some people have overegged the ‘own goal’ dimension of the 2016 referendum. Have we really reached the stage at which unionists – citizens of the United Kingdom and with a specific view on EU membership – shouldn’t have voted in a certain way because it might upset the Irish government and local Irish nationalism? Shouldn’t have voted Leave because victory would probably raise new constitutional challenges?

Does anyone believe that Sinn Fein, and, to a lesser extent, the SDLP would have rowed back on their desire for Irish unity had there been a comfortable victory for Remain? Would the narrowing of demographics have stopped? Would the calls for a border poll have ceased? Would the Executive have survived the RHI fallout; would we have avoided the 2017 Assembly election; would the Irish language, legacy, culture et al problems have been resolved? Of course not. The victory for Leave changed particular circumstances and dynamics, but all of the older, seemingly irresolvable issues and challenges also remained in play.

DUP members (including Arlene Foster in red) at the Titanic Exhibition Centre digest the news that Nigel Dodds had lost his North Belfast seat

That said, the DUP got it wrong. Badly wrong. As far back as March 29, Nigel Dodds noted: “I would stay in the EU and remain, rather than risk Northern Ireland’s position. That’s how strongly I feel about the Union.”

A few weeks later, Arlene Foster spoke at an event in Margaret Thatcher’s former constituency in Finchley: “As leader of the DUP I have made clear that the protection of the Union of the United Kingdom is more important than any other political aspiration or cause. I would not put forward any cause which I believed would result in a weakening of the Union, but we must always be cautious of how we move forward. We should resist the temptation to pitch one region against another.”

And yet the DUP threw all of its eggs into first, the ERG basket and then into Boris Johnson’s. I don’t think there was a single commentator in Northern Ireland who didn’t warn the DUP about trusting Johnson and the ERG: indeed, I was the one who first came up with the line about Johnson taking your Alsatian and returning with a three-legged Chihuahua.

It was Johnson who, in prioritising English nationalism rather than pan-UK unionism, pushed the one region against another strategy. It was Johnson who lied to the DUP conference. It was Johnson who gave the nod of approval to a border down the Irish Sea. It is Johnson who no longer needs the DUP.

In March 2017, after an Assembly election which saw unionism lose its majority in a local Parliament/Assembly for the first time ever, the DUP got seriously rattled. Rescue came in the form of a disastrous election for Theresa May a few months later and a kingmaker role for their 10 MPs. In fairness to the party the confidence and supply arrangement made sense and the £1billion-plus they extracted was for all of NI rather than just pet projects. But the backstop blow from May a few months later – which took the party completely by surprise – should have served as a loud, very loud, warning bell. It was a moment for reflection and serious conversations outside their usual comfort zones.

Instead, the party went into uber-unionist mode; cosying up to Johnson, Rees-Mogg and the ERG, believing that a bunch of English nationalists would die in a ditch for them. Even when Johnson and Rees-Mogg jumped out of the ditch a few months later and backed May’s Withdrawal Agreement, the DUP still thought they could count on the likes of former NI secretaries of state Owen Paterson and Theresa Villiers to back them. But no: the party found itself alone in the ditch and lumbered with a much worse option than May had presented them with.

Today marks the beginning of a very difficult period for the DUP. A bad election result on Thursday leaves them in search of a power base again and the keys of the first minister’s office is probably a much more attractive option than another election in February. But those keys come with a price: and I’m not sure if the DUP is ready to pay that price.

But, Sinn Fein didn’t have a great day, either and, with a Southern election likely very soon, it might suit the party to prove that it can do coalition in Northern Ireland. I’m not convinced that a deal – while possible – will be stable or genuinely cooperative, let alone resolve the ongoing problems, but it looks more likely than it did this time last week.

The DUP has another problem, of course. Arlene Foster. Under her watch unionism lost its majority in Stormont, was ‘betrayed’ by two prime ministers in whom the party put so much trust, saw unionist MPs outnumbered by non-unionists for the first time ever in Westminster and now facing the prospect of serious concessions in return for a rebooted Assembly.

I know exactly what Arlene would have said had it been David Trimble responsible for all of this. She knows it, too.