Sam McBride: We are entering a defining season for Arlene Foster - and all of unionism

The RHI Inquiry and the decision about whether to restore Storont will be crucial for Arlene Foster ' and for unionism. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA
The RHI Inquiry and the decision about whether to restore Storont will be crucial for Arlene Foster ' and for unionism. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA
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In a fortnight children will return to school, summer will meld into autumn and MPs will return from the summer recess for what will be weeks of constitutional drama ahead of the UK’s scheduled departure from the EU on October 31.

For good or ill, the coming months will be consumed by Brexit, perhaps extending to a snap general election fought on that issue. The resolution of that debate, if indeed there can be any clear resolution by then, will have far-reaching practical and constitutional implications for Northern Ireland.

But even if the European question could be conclusively settled in some unforeseen way, the autumn will be a defining season not just for Arlene Foster, but for unionism as an ideology.

Even though it may not seem so immediately, the decisions taken over coming weeks are likely to shape the level of support for Northern Ireland’s continued place within the Union.

Central to that will be the outcome of the public inquiry into the RHI scandal. Sir Patrick Coghlin has shrewdly refused to ever set even an indicative timeframe for when his report would be published.

Oral evidence finished almost ten months ago. But as recently as several weeks ago, the inquiry was continuing to quietly investigate elements of the energy scandal, submitting questions to witnesses and carrying out its own inquiries to piece together what is a fiendishly complicated web of intrigue.

Last month letters were issued to many witnesses to set out how they will be criticised in Sir Patrick’s report. There is an expectation among some witnesses and well-connected Stormont figures that the report will be published in late September, although Sir Patrick’s discretion means that speculation has to be heavily caveated. No one but Sir Patrick, perhaps a handful of inquiry staff and witnesses in receipt of letters can know the report’s key findings.

But there is almost certain to be criticism of either Arlene Foster personally or her right-hand man for most of her ministerial career, Andrew Crawford. Even if it is the latter, there will be a significant impact on Mrs Foster because ministers are judged accountable for the actions of their special advisers.

There are multiple other DUP figures who will be anxiously poring over the report when it is released to see if they have been criticised.

That will be a moment of acute peril for Mrs Foster. Having seen Stormont implode as revelations and allegations about cash for ash dominated the news for weeks, Mrs Foster’s then belief that the public inquiry would exonerate her actions and those of Dr Crawford will be tested against what Sir Patrick says.

Even though Sinn Fein was last February willing to do a deal with the DUP to restore Stormont, setting aside its original sole red line that it would not govern with Mrs Foster while she was under investigation, it is now difficult to see Sinn Féin re-entering Stormont before the inquiry reports.

To do so would be to build a new administration on a banana skin, with the potential of an adverse finding against the DUP leader putting pressure on republicans to again topple Stormont because Mrs Foster had not cleared her name as they said she had to if they were to share power with her.

But if the inquiry reports in late September that will leave two snap choices for the DUP. Does it back its leader, or dump her? And, regardless of that decision, does it attempt to finalise a sudden deal with Sinn Féin to restore Stormont by October 20 to prevent the decriminalisation of abortion?

The latter issue has thrown up what for many DUP members is the deeply discomfiting but unmistakable choice between an Irish language act – almost certainly a key element which Sinn Féin would insist upon – and abortion (the DUP having tacitly accepted that the other reform, same-sex marriage, is now unstoppable, with or without Stormont).

For some traditionalist DUP members, that pits against each other two of the strongest elements of their political philosophy – their faith and their tribe.

Over recent weeks there have been conflicting suggestions from informed Stormont figures as to the political implications of the abortion issue. Some believe that there are senior DUP figures who are privately delighted to see two of the issues on which their party has increasingly seemed out of step with public opinion now removed from their in-tray, yet in a way which they can publicly denounce.

Others suggest that there are those within the party who have reassessed their priorities and would now concede far more to Sinn Féin if it could prevent Northern Ireland moving from having the most restrictive abortion regime in the UK and Ireland to having the most liberal. There is no guarantee of that group being ascendent to the point of driving a painful compromise. But if they do not succeed by October, they could easily move to the other side of the argument, pushing against any future agreement because they have lost what for some of them was a reason to support devolution in the first place.

Over recent weeks, the power behind the DUP throne, Timothy Johnston, and senior Sinn Féin negotiator Conor Murphy have on several occasions been seen locked in private talks.

Both men are intelligent and pragmatic. Although what they are discussing now is likely to be changes to how Stormont operates, the trade-off for Irish language legislation and how a new administration could relate to the issues thrown up by Brexit, they will both be aware of the wider constitutional implications of their decisions. One is seeking to strengthen the Union and one is seeking its end. Both cannot simultaneously succeed.

Since Stormont last met the possibility of a border poll has become more credible.

There is still no expectation of such a referendum being held imminently and almost no one who believes that were it to be held now that it would be won by nationalism.

Publicly and privately, senior British and Irish government figures are playing down any belief that a plebiscite on a united Ireland would be desirable for the foreseeable future.

But although neither Dublin nor London want such an outcome, governments – and circumstances – can change in the blink of an eye.

It is conceivable that a Corbyn or McDonnell-led Labour government and a Fianna Fáil administration in Dublin, perhaps propped up by Sinn Féin, and perhaps in the wake of the 2021 census if it delivers evidence of rapid demographic change, could view the question very differently.

Even if the leader of unionism in the next few years is not the leader who will lead the remain side in a border poll, they are likely to be crucial to preparing the ground for the leader who will do so.

Therefore the decision about Arlene Foster’s future is much more than a tactical choice for the DUP. Even though some of those making the decision will see it purely through a party lens, this is a strategic decision for unionism.

Is Mrs Foster the leader most capable of persuading undecided voters to back the Union in a border poll?

And if devolution entails the stability which is good for the constitutional status quo, can Stormont be restored on terms which make it less open to derision than its last incarnation?