Alex Kane: Like David Trimble in 2003, Arlene Foster lacks the authority to lead unionism

One of the questions I’m asked most often is, will Arlene Foster survive?

The more interesting question, of course, is whether her survival is in the long term interests of the DUP and of unionism generally?

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Unionism faces its greatest challenges since 1972 — when their world collapsed after the prorogation of the Stormont Parliament; indeed, the challenges it faces may be the greatest it has faced since the 1912-21 period.

Brexit, demographics, the rise of Sinn Fein (and the accompanying attempt to rewrite history), the loss of the unionist majority in the assembly, almost two years without a government, and the looming celebration of NI’s centenary in 2021.

Any one of those issues represents a major challenge; collectively, they represent a full scale assault.

So, it seems essential to me that we have a strong leader. I’m just not sure that Arlene Foster is now that leader.

Arlene Foster also made a monumental mistake in seeming to suggest, in an interview with Patrick Kielty, above, she would leave if there was a vote for Irish unity, says Alex Kane

Arlene Foster also made a monumental mistake in seeming to suggest, in an interview with Patrick Kielty, above, she would leave if there was a vote for Irish unity, says Alex Kane

It was under her watch that unionists lost their majority in the assembly (a possibility I flagged up in a pre-election piece in the News Letter).

She made a huge error in her initial response to the RHI story. There was a route she could have taken, an internal inquiry, which would have prevented a full-blown inquiry. Yes, it might have meant some personal embarrassment for her; but better that than the huge embarrassment which has followed the almost daily revelations about the internal workings of the DUP.

And certainly better than the whiff of corruption and cover-up that now hangs over some DUP figures.

I don’t blame her for the collapse of the assembly and executive, but I do believe that she allowed herself to be outmanoeuvered by Sinn Fein at that crucial time from mid-December 2016 to early January 2017.

Peter Robinson would not have allowed that to happen. His response might have been both novel and contrived, but he would have ensured the governing machine kept on turning.

She has allowed herself to be pushed into a position in which her fate and the fate of the executive seems to lie in the hands of Sinn Fein. That is a crucially weak position for the leader of unionism to find themselves in.

Many, many people, and it isn’t just unionists by the way (Dublin-based parties also have concerns), have a huge problem about how Sinn Fein looks like it is being allowed to rewrite history and promote its own narrative of the past 50 years or so.

I have argued for years that it is the job of unionist leaders to deconstruct Sinn Fein arguments and to prepare a strong, coherent, pro-Union response.

It seems to me that Arlene Foster is failing in that task. I would go further: I think her responses and throwaway lines have actually galvanised broad-based nationalism and pushed new votes into Sinn Fein’s camp.

And as someone who was pro-Leave I have been genuinely concerned about what looks like the DUP’s recklessly cavalier response to those people who are seeking answers to serious, relevant questions about what Brexit will mean to them. The primary task of the leading voices of unionism is to assuage and reassure those who live in Northern Ireland — particularly those who are quietly pro-Union, but also loudly pro-EU.

Too many of them have been discomfited by recent events and are beginning to reassess the value to them of the Union. Again, that’s why it is vital that they hear a promotion of the Union which clearly undermines Sinn Fein’s relentless pro-unity project.

In the last five elections — and I know that Arlene wasn’t DUP leader for all of them —’unionists’ (those parties and candidates running on a pro-Union ticket) haven’t quite mustered 50% of the total vote.

The response to that reality and to opinion poll evidence which, even when it has unity figures quite low, indicates pro-Union support hovering around 50%— has been woefully sanguine. The possibility of a border poll is dismissed,the possibility that there are circumstances in which the pro-unity side could win is also dismissed.

My primary concern — as I have said many times on these pages down the years —is that unionism doesn’t do enough to be ahead of the curve. We still tend to assume that everything will be alright on the night.

I think Foster also made a monumental mistake when seeming to suggest — and I know her whole answer to the question wasn’t broadcast — that she would leave if there was a majority vote in favour of Irish unity.

What leader says something like that without being mindful of what message it sends to unionism —particularly the hundreds of thousands who wouldn’t just be able to up sticks and go somewhere else. It was a mistake; a tactical error. But those kinds of error seem to be par for the course for Foster. She made the same sort of errors in her response to the collapse of the talks last February.

We are, I think, down to nothing more than numbers-game territory. Which means it is vital that unionists are strong, confident, bold, forward-thinking and capable of out-thinking and out-running Sinn Fein’s analysis and agenda.

Sinn Fein is rewriting history and nailing down its own very specific, self-interested agenda. What else would you expect it to do? But I also expect the leader of the DUP — the largest unionist party, by a considerable majority — to counter SF’s agenda with one of her own. I see no evidence of that.

I have no animus against Arlene Foster. I do not dislike her. I do not question, let alone challenge her commitment to the Union. But I do believe that she no longer has the personal authority or strength to lead unionism at this crucial moment. She has made too many mistakes and unforced errors.

I said the same thing about David Trimble in 2003 and again in 2005.

• Alex Kane’s weekly column will be in Monday’s News Letter as usual