Foster has hard work ahead as she returns at the helm of NI

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial

Less than one year ago this newspaper congratulated Arlene Foster on a stunning election win.

We praised the decisive result she had achieved for unionism and heralded her leadership and the promise it showed for Northern Ireland.

There is no question that as first minister in an absurd mandatory coalition system, alongside a party as unreliable as Sinn Fein, Mrs Foster was always in a difficult position.

Since 1998 unionists have been told by London and Dublin that Sinn Fein must, no matter what it does, be in power, or else devolution is suspended for everyone.

There is always the threat of joint authority if unionists do not play ball but never any threat of specific sanction against the IRA’s political wing.

But despite that context, it cannot be pretended today that this electoral outcome is anything other than a bad one for unionism. A 10-seat DUP lead over Sinn Fein has turned into a vanishingly small one of a single seat. A 36,000 DUP vote lead has turned into an 1,100 one.

The lower seat margin is slightly mitigated by the fact that the number of seats has gone down, and so any majority in this parliament is proportionately larger than a margin of the same number of seats would have been in the last assembly.

But the fact the UUP has had a poor election, when added to the DUP relative decline, raises serious questions about the future of unionism and how unionists should move ahead.

Mike Nesbitt tried to do something new in politics but was constrained by the fact that he never seemed entirely to understand unionism and was not in a strong position to bring people with him in his comment that he would transfer to the SDLP. He deserves admiration but his comment was ill thought out and has merely contributed to some DUP losses and so he is right to resign.

Mrs Foster must not now rush into any arrangement to prop up devolution. Direct rule under this present UK government is far preferable to hasty concessions to Sinn Fein.

She is now the leader of unionism and has much to do – to mend fences within unionism, to present an attractive face to the world for pro-Union politics, and to help clear up the mess caused by RHI.