Mistress of all she surveys, Arlene Foster now has to make this government work

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

When she became DUP leader I wrote this: “Arlene Foster’s first job as leader is to burst the UUP bubble. She does not want to be touring the media studios on May 6 explaining why the UUP has done well – particularly at the DUP’s expense. She does not want the old guard of the DUP getting jittery and wondering if her elevation was a political and electoral mistake. The DUP has got used to winning. What she has to do, therefore, is convince unionists that her leadership of the DUP will make a difference for the better.”

Well, she has burst the bubble. She has stamped her personal authority on the DUP – this is her win, built on and around her – and seen off all the challenges from her unionist competitors. The DUP has 202,567 votes to a UUP/TUV/PUP/Ukip tally of 127,142; 38 seats to 17; and a 30 per cent share to an 18 per cent share. At the start of the campaign the DUP would have been happy with 35 seats, so exceeding their own expectations is a huge political and psychological bonus. It’s no wonder she was looking so happy on Friday evening!

Jim Allister will have been particularly disappointed. He had hoped to bring back at least one other MLA with him and even said that he would regard coming back alone as ‘failure’. The TUV got more votes than the Greens and People Before Profit, yet they managed to secure four seats between them. His other problem is that the DUP will holler ‘failure’ every time he rises to his feet; and he’ll now have serious oratorical competition from Eamonn McCann. That may seem an odd point to make, but it could cost him media attention.

It was another dreadful election for the PUP, with not even the sniff of a seat – even in East Belfast. The knock-on effect of their failure (less than 6,000 votes and about one per cent) is that on-the-street loyalism still doesn’t have a voice in the Assembly.

Again, if that particular community feels isolated and ignored it could bring problems during the marching season. That said, the PUP leadership – and this is a point I have made before – needs to figure out why the party is polling so badly. When someone like John Kyle can’t break five per cent in East Belfast that’s a thumpingly loud reminder that there’s a problem with the brand.

A year ago David McNarry told me that Ukip would win five seats. It didn’t happen, even though the party relied heavily on an anti-EU platform. They had a fleeting hope of a seat in East Antrim but, as is always the case, the gap between one seat and no seat is the same as the gap between relevance and irrelevance. I don’t know where the party goes from here, let alone who will lead it.

The UUP had a bad day, made worse, much worse, by the fact that they didn’t see it coming. Nesbitt needed a good result: indeed he told me in an interview a few months ago that, “16 doesn’t represent growth”. He got 16, the same as 2011, but with slightly less actual votes and share of the overall vote.

The party is down to one MLA in Belfast; it shed votes in Fermanagh/South Tyrone; and failed to deliver a second seat in South Antrim. I have some sympathy with Nesbitt’s claim that the DUP benefited from ‘project fear,’ yet the fact remains that it worked because not enough voters believed that the UUP was offering a better alternative.

The other thing – even though it ran a good campaign and Nesbitt performed well with the media – is that the UUP didn’t produce the answer to a question I posed in March: “What was the UUP going to do that the DUP had failed to do in its own relationship with Sinn Fein. In other words, how was the UUP going to secure delivery and progress on key issues when the DUP hadn’t been able to do it over nine years?”

Complaining about a ‘dysfunctional executive’ was justified, but it had to be accompanied by a solution. There was no solution.

There was also confusion about the UUP’s stance on opposition. That lack of clarity could have been avoided by a very simple form of words: “We are seeking a mandate to do the job better than the DUP has been doing it. But if the electorate doesn’t give us that mandate then we will form part of the official opposition.” Lack of clarity often means lack of votes. Given this election result I don’t see how the UUP could even justify entering the Programme for Government talks later this week.

Arlene Foster is in a very strong position today. Whatever anyone says, she and the party got the tactics right. She also has a very substantial breathing space of almost three years until the next election (although a UK exit from the EU would bring a variety of headaches) that allows her to further shape and steer the party. They trust her.

Her priority, though, is to do something that Trimble, Paisley and Robinson couldn’t do; establish the sort of relationship with the Deputy First Minister and his party that allows them to grasp the very difficult issues and resolve them without going to the default positions of veto, crisis, or kicking them into touch. She and McGuinness have their own mandate to govern together and a window of opportunity to take some risks together. I hope they can make it happen. Northern Ireland needs good government.