Politics is a funny old thing. Six months ago Arlene Foster looked like her tenure as DUP leader was coming to an unexpected end. Senior – and I really do mean senior – members of her party were briefing that, “she is in trouble”.
Her reputation as a confident, competent, safe pair of hands – as leader and a minister – was being reassessed in the wake of the Spotlight programme about RHI; members of her leadership team spoke glowingly of Peter Robinson; and some DUP MLAs were quaking in their boots about the prospect of an early election (knowing that the reduction from 108 to 90 seats would see some of them out of a job four years earlier than anticipated).
That election shook unionism generally and the DUP in particular to the core; not only had they lost their overall majority for the first time since 1921, but Sinn Fein – 1,168 votes behind the DUP – had been galvanised and enthused like never before. So much so, in fact, that the very future of the Assembly seemed to be in their gift.
People – including many in her own party – wondered if Foster would be remembered as the unionist leader who lost both the unionist majority and devolution. One former DUP MLA – albeit miffed about losing his seat – told me: “At least when Trimble wrecked the UUP voters had us to turn to. Where do they go now?”
Well, in one of those “Events, dear boy, events” moments, those voters went to the DUP again. On June 8 the DUP, with 292,316 votes and 36%, recorded their best ever result. More important, though, the DUP is now propping up a Conservative government in what will be the most crucial political time for the UK since the Second World War.
And all of that is reflected in Arlene Foster’s body language. She has been reborn, reinvented. She is at the very centre of power at the moment: not just in a nod-and-a-wink ‘understanding’ with a government (which we have seen before), but in a very public formal pact. That is a remarkable reversal of fortune since January. And, to be honest, a mighty slap in the face for me – for I had written her off!
But it is worth pointing out that she now faces an entirely new challenge. The reaction from a very broad swathe of the GB media and political establishment (not to mention social media) to the DUP/Conservative deal has seen the DUP portrayed in the most horrendous, unflattering light. Indeed, listening to the hysterical overreaction from some London-centric journalists you would think they were writing about 17th century Salem.
Yet it doesn’t seem all that long ago that some of these journalists and outlets were praising the ‘courage’ of the DUP for cutting a deal with Sinn Fein. And nor does it seem all that long ago that they were pouring bile on Jeremy Corbyn while hoisting Theresa May on to a pedestal.
Go back to 1995 and look at their reaction to the election of David Trimble as UUP leader – when it was fairly common for him to be described as ‘hardline’ and ‘to the right of Paisley’.
But Foster and the DUP need to be careful that the image of their party doesn’t become the set-in-stone image of local unionism across Great Britain. In the run-up to the 2021 centenary of NI, and with the Union coming under all sorts of post-Brexit challenges from Sinn Fein and others, it is essential that unionism here manifests itself in a more coherent, attractive manner.
I describe myself as a pan-UK unionist: which, putting it at its simplest, means equality of citizenship across the UK. I don’t like NI being described as a ‘place apart’. I don’t like a unionism which says it values the Union, but then treats UK citizens in NI differently when it comes to issues like same-sex marriage, abortion, licensing laws et al. Citizenship should mean that the rights and protections afforded and offered in England, Scotland and Wales should be offered here, too.
My pan-UK unionism also means that I believe that the Union and the continuation of the UK is preferable to any other constitutional option, which has been offered or suggested. That’s why I oppose Irish and Scottish independence; although I would, of course, accept the verdict of the ballot box when it comes to referendums and border polls. And that’s why I believe that those of us who believe in and promote the value of the Union do so in a way that attracts rather than repels.
Those who pour bile on the DUP – and, by extension, NI unionism – need to be countered with a rational argument. We cannot afford to shrug off their scorn and disdain. We cannot sit back and allow an army of bloggers and tweeters to rubbish our beliefs and write us off as dinosaurs. And those of us within unionism who disagree with the DUP’s moral standpoint have to find a way of influencing them and persuading them that they are – albeit unintentionally – damaging the Union from our side of the pond.
I’m no particular fan of the DUP; yet when all is said and done the Union we both believe in is the same thing.
Unionism needs to work together on this one: because unionism is bigger than just the DUP.