Ben Lowry: Humble remarks by Foster about new DUP voters suggest her party sees the challenges ahead for unionism

DUP leader Arlene Foster gives speech to DUP executive at the Ramada Hotel south in Belfast on August 31, in which she had conciliatory things to say about the Irish language and new DUP voters.''Photo by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye
DUP leader Arlene Foster gives speech to DUP executive at the Ramada Hotel south in Belfast on August 31, in which she had conciliatory things to say about the Irish language and new DUP voters.''Photo by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye

Almost as significant as Arlene Foster’s conciliatory comments about the Irish language on Thursday night was something else the DUP leader said.

It was her remarks about unionism, which were barely reported.

Mrs Foster, who at times in the past has sounded shrill when the DUP has defeated the party from which she once defected, the Ulster Unionists, had this to say in her Thursday speech:

“Let me say that I am deeply appreciative of those who voted for us in June, many of whom will have done so for the first time.

“As a party let me say to them that we do not take their support for granted.

“Nor do we believe that they are all sudden converts to the DUP. We know that, for many, they saw a vote for the DUP as the best way to express support for the Union that they care so deeply about.”

That comment of Mrs Foster’s to the DUP executive was unexpectedly humble but plainly accurate.

Anyone who has kept their ear to the ground within unionism will know that for more than a decade a growing number of people who do not particularly like the party have been gravitating towards it, fuelled by anger with Sinn Fein.

Michelle O’Neill’s leadership, which has reached new heights of triumphalism even for Sinn Fein, and has included her commemorating some of the IRA’s most notorious sectarian killers (stopped by the SAS at Loughgall in 1987), has accelerated that trend within unionism.

Since the 2010 general election I have carried out an exit poll at Elmgrove Primary School in East Belfast, a bellweather polling station for the constituency, and I did so again in June. This time I recorded a small but notable number of people who said they had voted Alliance in the last general election but were voting DUP this time – always for the same reason, because of Sinn Fein.

People on the ground within nationalism say that the same thing is happening on that side of the fence – that Sinn Fein is now getting the votes even of former SDLP voters who do not like it, perhaps even despise it.

But their dislike of the DUP is trumping such considerations.

Mrs Foster is, like Ms O’Neill, said to have accelerated this trend.

A striking thing about Mrs Foster’s comments is that it is sharply at odds with the way in which the DUP normally reacts to victory over anyone, including unionist rivals – extreme celebration and even triumphalism.

Triumphalism – that word again. It is something most people at times might feel the instinct to display, in all sorts of moments of triumph from political to professional to social to sporting.

But it is something that we usually loathe to see displayed by other people, particularly when those people are rivals or enemies.

At times Mrs Foster and some other UUP defectors have seemed more DUP than DUP in the way that they might trumpet a victory over their former party.

Her frequent citing of her mandate annoyed people in the UUP in the aftermath of her 2016 Stormont election success.

It is the zeal of the convert perhaps.

Thus Mrs Foster’s comments on Thursday night seem to be an olive branch towards Ulster Unionists.

She has, in those quotes from her speech repeated above, made explicit her awareness of the provisional nature of a major plank of the DUP’s current support, and her awareness that it could be lost (for example, if moderate unionists no longer felt Sinn Fein was a threat).

In America last year during the presidential election I noticed a similar trend when I talked to more than 100 voters in Florida, North Carolina and Washington DC.

Many of the people who voted for Donald Trump were blunt about the fact that they were wary of him, perhaps even disliked him, but they disliked or feared Hillary Clinton more.

My sense was that at most half of Trump voters were enthusiastic fans of his.

“But hey, I had no choice,” one man in his 90s who voted for Mr Trump told me in Raleigh, contrasting Mr Trump with Mrs Clinton.

Given the grave mis-steps by the DUP since their resounding Stormont election triumph of last year, it would have been a disastrous mis-reading of the mood within unionism if Mrs Foster had crowed over the defeat of the UUP this June (when the Westminster DUP vote rebounded from this year’s Assembly result).

Instead, on Thursday she said that these new supporters “have placed an unparalleled trust in the DUP and it is now our job to ... demonstrate how we can advance the unionist cause”.

Mrs Foster went on to say that the Union between NI and the UK “is stronger and more vibrant today than at any time in my life”.

By some measures that is true. Support for the Union seems still to be sky high in Northern Ireland, a year after the Brexit referendum shock result.

Even in Scotland separatists are not making the progress that they hoped since the vote to quit the EU.

But Brexit has not happened.

Presumably Mrs Foster’s contrite tone about these new DUP voters is rooted in an awareness of the profound challenges that unionism now faces.

For example, it is entirely possible that a border poll will be held within the next decade and that the pro-Union victory will be huge, but that within that UK context the Province will nonetheless be changed by republicans in ways that are dramatic.

If the most radical manifestations of an Irish language act came to pass the ramifications would be vast.

Last evening I was at farewell drinks for Noel McAdam, the departing and widely respected veteran Belfast Telegraph political reporter (and one-time News Letter man).

There I asked some of the most experienced journalists in Northern Ireland what they made of the impasse.

The views ranged from people who thought that Sinn Fein had seriously over-played its hand to people like me, who think the party is on the march whatever it does (and partly because of such hardball tactics).

It has no interest in making NI work long-term, yet knows it cannot be excluded.

It knows the DUP only temporarily holds the balance of power at Westminster.

It knows it will be in government in the Republic after the next election (or the one after that, or if not then then the one after that).

As anyone over the age of 40 knows, 10 years will pass in what seems like no time.

This is not to say that the situation facing unionism is hopeless. There are still very strong cards to play.

But given the demographic changes in NI a realignment within unionism is coming.

The main parties will, at least, have to work closely together. There also needs to be a determined effort to find new talent – smart young people who are as interested in the cause of keeping NI in the UK as they are on personal advancement.

That kind of talent is hard to find anywhere in politics now, including London or Washington.

It is particularly so in a place as small as NI when its parliament is suspended.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor