Ben Lowry: Arlene Foster is said to want to quit the DUP, yet the party gave her huge opportunity after she helped ruin the UUP

We heard much about Arlene Foster’s negative qualities over the years, but the exit of a leader is usually a time to recall the positives.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 1st May 2021, 11:48 am
Updated Saturday, 1st May 2021, 1:18 pm
Arlene Foster was prominent in the Ulster Unionists in the 1990s, and left them at the end of 2003, only weeks after she had been elected to represent the party at Stormont, helping almost to destroy the UUP
Arlene Foster was prominent in the Ulster Unionists in the 1990s, and left them at the end of 2003, only weeks after she had been elected to represent the party at Stormont, helping almost to destroy the UUP

I have observed the outgoing DUP leader in various settings, from speaking well in London or on southern Irish media to talking intelligently and thoughtfully in person.

She would have been at her best if she had presided over a time when unionism was secure, and so have felt more able to act on her outreach impulses (so long as she had expert advisors to help with details of government policy).

Mrs Foster’s moderate instincts clashed with harder ones, as is the case in many people, but the discord post the June 2016 Brexit vote meant that those two competing impulses were in obvious tension.

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Arlene Foster in April 2007 with the then DUP leader Rev Ian Paisley, First Minister designate, as he announced his ministerial team. From left Nigel Dodds, Peter Robinson, Edwin Poots and Ian Paisley junior. The DUP gave Mrs Foster golden opportunities. Photo Pacemaker

This led to the see-sawing that confused many of her allies and hastened her downfall.

Tributes to an outgoing leader will always be influenced by the nature of the departure, and one reported version of Mrs Foster’s intentions looks ugly.

The BBC said yesterday she will quit the DUP because it is not the party she joined.

When asked yesterday about that claim, Mrs Foster sidestepped it, but I trust that the BBC had good sources.

The most charitable thing that could be said of such a resignation from the DUP is that it would be baffling.

Yes, it is not the party she joined, which was far more fundamentalist in character, with Dr Ian Paisley at the helm. Yet she seems now to think that a much more moderate DUP than then is in fact too hardline.

Mrs Foster left a more moderate, secular and pragmatic party, the Ulster Unionist Party, and helped almost destroy it in the process.

She did not quit the UUP in principle swiftly after the Belfast Agreement, as Jim Allister left the DUP straight after it shared power with Sinn Fein. Rather, Mrs Foster left the UUP almost six years after the 1998 deal.

She did so just weeks after being chosen by the Ulster Unionists as a candidate, and standing for election on that ticket and winning that mandate. It was a ruthless, even treacherous, deed.

People in the DUP point out that she was superbly treated after the defection and given only golden positions. This culminated in Mrs Foster being made leader and sustained in the post for years, despite growing misgivings about her suitability for the role.

Mrs Foster lost support of almost all her MLAs, so it is natural she feels bruised. But time heals and I believe that the best course would be one of gratitude towards a party that gave her such huge opportunity, reflection on why colleagues turned on her, loyalty to her successor whatever her private misgivings, and humility in a new role, perhaps the Lords.

It would be a route to rehabilitation, even popularity.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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