Sam McBride: How Arlene Foster fell: Even as she dismissed the threat, the knives were being plunged
Though her internal enemies tarried for years before striking, when the blow came Arlene Foster’s fall was Biblical in its sudden brutality.
But whereas when King David lamented the demise in battle of the errant leader Saul and his son Jonathan with the words “how are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished”, Mrs Foster did not go down with a fight.
Instead, her actions this week epitomised the wisdom of another Biblical text familiar to DUP members: “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall”.
When this newspaper reported on its front page on Tuesday that multiple DUP constituency associations had written to the party to express concern at Mrs Foster’s leadership, it was clear that discontent had moved beyond the by then familiar off the record grumbling to journalists.
Nevertheless, rather than realising her peril, Mrs Foster that afternoon disdainfully dismissed the News Letter’s report. Speaking to journalists on the Shankill Road, she said: “We’ll just deal with it and move on because I’ve bigger things to do”.
That response summarised so much of Mrs Foster’s approach to the DUP leadership; an apparent blindness to how her actions were perceived, and a seeming reliance on spin in the face of uncomfortable truths.
But this week the substance of her colleagues’ manoeuvring defied any attempt to explain it away. Whether or not she knew that by Tuesday afternoon is unclear.
In the short term, Mrs Foster probably felt that her attempts to massage away awkward realities had worked – even if the strategy flopped on multiple occasions, one of which was to my benefit when her threat to sue over Burned drove a spike in sales to those keen to learn what she was seeking to suppress.
But spin can only work effectively in moderation, and alongside strategy. Lacking any coherent plan for the DUP, her leadership had become increasingly reactive to the point where the DUP’s next move was more likely to reflect the policy of Jim Allister than the person nominally in charge in Dundela Avenue.
While the DUP’s decision to defenestrate its leader was influenced by last week’s stance on an Assembly motion on gay conversion therapy and attendance at a north-south ministerial meeting, many in the party were as unnerved by the lurching incoherence of changing stances on those issues as they were by the substantive position at which she eventually arrived.
Most DUP members rose up in exasperation rather than in wrath. They were after all many of the same people who had won their seats as ‘Arlene’s candidates’ in her first election, the stunningly successful 2016 Assembly poll.
And they had been patient. Few other leaders would have been allowed to survive the RHI scandal, or the loss of unionism’s historic majority in Stormont, or the bungling of the party’s powerful Westminster position, or the disaster of the Irish Sea border. Mrs Foster was given a second chance, a third chance, and on and on and on.
By this week it was clear to most DUP MLAs and many others in the party that she was not going to change and was now a serious electoral and strategic liability.
In truth, by the time Mrs Foster dismissed the threat to her leadership on Tuesday afternoon, it was almost certainly too late for her to survive, even if she had been more alert to danger.
The previous evening, MLAs and MPs had been coordinating the letter of no confidence which would topple her.
Although referred to as a letter, and those who supported it were said to have signed, several sources say that there was only one copy of the letter and most of those who ‘signed’ did not see it, but affirmed in text messages and emails their support for its central proposition: The leadership must be overthrown.
Even many of the signatories were surprised that 85% of the DUP Assembly group were prepared to support the move.
With serendipitous timing, as Mrs Foster was on the Shankill, the estranged DUP MLA Jim Wells – banished under Mrs Foster over a dispute with the leadership – was brought back into the Assembly group for the first time in three years.
It was a demonstration of how power had already transferred from Mrs Foster. The mutineers were now in charge.
Around 17 DUP MLAs – one of whom was Edwin Poots – attended that meeting in a Parliament Buildings office. One of those present said that when they walked in and saw everyone from the most liberal DUP MLA, Paula Bradley, to the most conservative, Mr Wells, “I knew she was finished”.
In a second meeting of the DUP Assembly group that day, Mr Wells was presented with a cake to mark his 64th birthday.
As plans to remove Mrs Foster were discussed, most of her colleagues were now supping with a man who would have had no future in the party if she were to stay in charge.
And yet, little of this was inevitable. If Mrs Foster had been closer to her party, she should have seen her impending end.
Five days earlier one of her most loyal ministers, Diane Dodds, had been reduced to tears during what one witness described as a “mauling” by DUP politicians in Upper Bann – the area into which Mrs Foster had parachuted her friend after Mrs Dodds lost her MEP seat last year.
In another demonstration of how insubordination was replacing discipline, a photo with Mrs Foster at Carson’s statue to mark Northern Ireland’s centenary saw only a tiny turnout – one source said five MLAs – while some of those who had consciously snubbed their leader watched from windows high in Parliament Buildings.
There is a preternatural symmetry to what DUP members were this week saying about Mrs Foster and what Mrs Foster said about David Trimble.
In 2007, Mrs Foster told a BBC documentary that as the UUP sank lower and lower in elections she and others were telling Lord Trimble “you’re going to have to change”.
She said that they were told by those around the UUP leader that they were “the harbingers of doom, we were wrong, we would be proved wrong – and the sad thing is that I think David Trimble and some of his lieutenants actually believed that...he couldn’t read what was happening on the ground”.
At 4.15pm on Tuesday, the News Letter broke news of the no confidence letter on our website and 45 minutes later Mrs Foster pulled out of a scheduled meeting with the Secretary of State.
Just three hours after telling the cameras that she was in control, the DUP leader was now publicly panicking.
That evening one of Mrs Foster’s senior lieutenants rang MLAs, attempting to strong-arm them out of ousting the leader. By then he would have known that the rebels – although that word is hardly appropriate for 85% of any parliamentary party – had their sights on him as well.
There were actually four sets of letters swirling around the DUP, each of which was very bad for the leadership. A letter circulating among DUP councillors called for “the immediate resignation of the leader and deputy leader”.
The venom for Lord Dodds – in former times a hugely respected figure at the heart of the party and someone who straddled many of its factions – was particularly remarkable. Plotters mostly blamed him for failing to rein in Mrs Foster, and personally failing to better manage the Tory relationship which has delivered an internal UK border.
Lower down in the party, the fact that Diane Dodds had been put straight into a ministerial post and Nigel Dodds had been elevated to the Lords after losing their seats grated with some. One party member from Mr Dodds’ former North Belfast seat said bitterly: “How much more money do the Doddses want?”
East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson told an MLA that if they pressed ahead it would embolden Sinn Féin who might block Mrs Foster’s replacement unless the DUP made concessions.
But the rearguard by Mrs Foster’s allies failed in part because signatories to the letter now knew that it was they – and not those whose title suggested authority – who represented the settled will of the party.
At 10am the next day, Sky News’ Ireland Correspondent David Blevins was standing on my driveway as his cameraman set up for a pre-recorded interview to feature in Mrs Foster’s political obituary when his phone rang and he stepped away for a couple of minutes.
On the other end of the line was Mrs Foster’s director of communications, John Robinson, who said that his boss would be quitting at 4pm and they needed to make arrangements for her resignation statement to be recorded. In just 18 hours Mrs Foster had gone from bullishly dismissing any threat to her leadership to an admission to an outsider that the game was up.
In her resignation statement Mrs Foster departed very differently to how she had led the party – appealing for cross-community unity, warning of the danger of division and talking up the need to respect those with Irish as well as British and Northern Irish identities.
A day later, Mr Poots launched his campaign. A professionally-filmed video, social media graphics, a small campaign team – including Ian Paisley, Jonny Buckley and Paul Frew – and a succession of endorsements from DUP members, councillors and MLAs pointed to this having been planned for some time. It also demonstrated the sort of basic professionalism which has not defined the DUP for years.
That same day, veteran BBC political correspondent Gareth Gordon got a call from a source who had a remarkable story: Mrs Foster was going to resign her DUP membership.
The source told the journalist that “she believes this is not the party she joined...some people are seeking to drag the party back to 1972”.
Even though it is more common for former leaders not to stay on the backbenches (Churchill remained an MP for nine years after leaving Downing Street), it is highly unorthodox for a leader to let it be known internally that they are leaving their party while still the leader.
It was also an example of how the famously hot-tempered former solicitor’s willingness to be led by gut instinct has undermined her tactics. She is said to be furious at Mr Poots’ role in her downfall and desperate to prevent him succeeding her.
Yet in telling her constituency association – where it was always likely to leak – that she was leaving the party, and by criticising the party’s direction, the leader did not appear to be considering how that would be perceived by the MLAs and MPs who will vote on whether Mr Poots takes over.
Mrs Foster is far from the only DUP member to be dismayed at the prospect of unionism being led by Mr Poots, with his long list of fundamentalist claims anathema to many voters.
The DUP is a party at a crossroads. It has lost much of its sense of what it stands for. That precedes Mrs Foster’s tenure; indeed, the party’s failure under Ian Paisley to ever openly confront the scale of its U-turn on governing with Sinn Féin is arguably when that identity crisis developed.
If the next DUP leader succeeds in undoing the damage of the Foster era – to the party’s credibility, to Stormont, to the Union – they will almost certainly have triumphed.
In all likelihood, they will fail, not least because it is not in the DUP’s power to recover all that has been lost.
This is ultimately about much more than Mrs Foster or whoever succeeds her – this is about the future of the United Kingdom.
If the next leader of the DUP fails as spectacularly as Mrs Foster, there is likely to be little for their successor to salvage for unionism.
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