Sam McBride: Deal a risk for Foster, but no deal a personal threat

Arlene Foster faces a defining moment
Arlene Foster faces a defining moment

The DUP is this weekend consulting its members about potentially striking a deal with Sinn Féin – perhaps as early as next week.

The fine details of such a deal have been carefully guarded but one principle has been publicly accepted by the DUP: There will be some Irish language legislation, whether that be called an Irish language act or something else.

If Arlene Foster does lead her party into such an agreement, involving as it would a monumental personal U-turn in the space of just a few months, it is likely to put her under enormous pressure from within the DUP as well as from wider unionism.

But, as the DUP’s power base has shifted to Westminster in recent months, it may also reflect another reality: If Mrs Foster does not soon clinch a deal to get Stormont back she may not only be out of work as an MLA, but also ultimately lose the leadership.

From late last year, Mrs Foster’s leadership of the DUP has been imperilled as more and more detail about the level of her responsibility for the RHI scandal emerged.

Having lost 10 DUP MLA seats and presided over unionism losing its Stormont majority in March’s snap Assembly election, Lazarus-like, Mrs Foster came back from the brink of political death with a stunning general election result in June.

But the grandeur of a position in which she was able to effectively choose the UK’s prime minister masked a shabbier political reality: Sinn Féin’s veto on the return of devolution meant that if she didn’t cut a deal with Gerry Adams’ party her future would be in the political wilderness.

Contrary to what some people in Belfast and London feared in June, the DUP did not use its Westminster influence as reason to play hardball at Stormont.

On the contrary, close observers of the DUP over the summer have observed a party which has seemed more and more desperate to get back into power in Belfast.

Although some of that is ideological – the belief that devolution is best for Northern Ireland and leads to nationalists being more content about Northern Ireland’s place within the UK – and some of it is based on the fact that scores of party members depended on Stormont for their income, the unique impact on the leader is likely to have been a factor in her consideration.

Although devolution has been collapsed since January, Mrs Foster, like other MLAs, has retained her elected position. But if there is no deal and direct rule returns, there will be a clamour to end MLA salaries, something which would force them to seek alternative employment. Even if that did not happen, her internal authority would rapidly dissipate as decisions were taken at Westminster where Nigel Dodds, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Sammy Wilson would be the key figures.

The difficulty Mrs Foster now faces is that the overwhelming mandate which she amassed in June was on the understanding that the DUP would be a bulwark against Sinn Féin’s demands. Mrs Foster herself said in February that she would “never accede to an Irish language act” and although there is frustration at months of civil service rule, many unionists would rather see direct rule than a DUP-Sinn Féin compromise.

One DUP member said last night: “This is a key moment for Arlene’s leadership” and suggested that on past evidence if she, Mr Dodds and the party’s key backroom figure, Timothy Johnston, back the deal there will be little meaningful consultation with party members, many of whom are outright opposed to any Irish language legislation.

But despite the risks which a deal would entail for Mrs Foster, she has one key weapon in her arsenal: The historically unprecedented weakness of the DUP’s rival, the Ulster Unionist Party. With the DUP in a hegemonic position, unhappy members and supporters have few credible alternatives.