Tuesday 12 December 2017

One year on from her famous victory 'arrogant Arlene' faces stormy waters

Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness speak to journalists as they leave Number 10 Downing Street in London, last year. Photo: Dylan Martinez/Reuters
Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness speak to journalists as they leave Number 10 Downing Street in London, last year. Photo: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

Suzanne Breen

Just hours after she was crowned DUP leader at a glittering ceremony in Belfast, Arlene Foster did something which epitomised why so many saw her as a tidal wave of inspiration in the stale sea of unionist suits.

The local Q Radio Breakfast show received a telephone call from "Arlene from Fermanagh" who gave a light-hearted weather update and complained that there was no snow.

When asked by the intrigued presenters for more personal details, she quipped that she once served on the local council before she landed a job in Belfast. You could never have imagined her predecessor, Peter Robinson, doing something so humorously down-to-earth.

The entire exchange appeared certain to set the likely tone for Mrs Foster's tenure as first minister of Northern Ireland - confident, relaxed, quick-witted and in touch with real people.

That was only a year ago yet it seems like another political lifetime. Today, Mrs Foster is the most ridiculed political leader in the last quarter-of-a-century on either side of the Border.

Since the 'cash-for-ash' scandal broke, she has come across as all those things we believed she was not - arrogant, out of touch, and contemptuous of public opinion.

As the North looks set to go to the polls, what must petrify the DUP is that this image of Mrs Foster isn't restricted to the nationalist community, and that their party could be in line for an electoral battering.

There are indications that those who stood with the DUP through thick and thin, in times of war and peace, are disgusted by what has unfolded over the last month. The party has just weeks to win them back.

Mrs Foster, who never fired a shot or planted a bomb, has bizarrely managed to make Martin McGuinness, the man once dubbed the 'Butcher of the Bogside', seem reasonable and statesmanlike to many who aren't Sinn Féin supporters.

A frail and deeply ill deputy first minister chose to make his way to Stormont to announce his resignation on Monday and answer questions from the media. It appeared to even some of his fiercest critics as a courageous act by a man determined to fulfil his political duty in public despite intensely challenging personal circumstances.

By contrast, Mrs Foster handed Sinn Féin and her unionist opponents a major propaganda victory. She posted a video of herself delivering a monologue as she sat stiffly in front of a marble fireplace - of all locations - in the lavish surroundings of Stormont Castle.

Social media went wild, saying that the DUP leader thought she was the queen. This was more Marie Antoinette meets amateur anchorwoman.

Reading from an autocue, Mrs Foster apologised, as she did last month in the Assembly, for the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme which is set to cost the Northern Ireland taxpayer almost £500m (€560m). But the problem was that she didn't come across as sufficiently sorry. Nobody expected her to wear sackcloth and ashes but, when the public required humility, they got haughtiness.

The DUP leader mentioned Sinn Féin a staggering eight times in two minutes. But attempting to appeal to sectarian sensibilities in this scandal isn't working.

The next day Mrs Foster appeared wearing a Union flag scarf. Rather than rallying the troops to her side, she came across as a replica of the 'Wrap the Green Flag around me' brigade of Irish nationalism.

If her party suffers significant losses in the forthcoming election, Mrs Foster may not survive as DUP leader. The perplexing aspect of the whole RHI crisis is that she could have avoided it completely had she ceded to Sinn Féin's simple request to step aside for four weeks to allow for an investigation's preliminary report.

The Assembly was about to break for Christmas anyway, and she would by now be back in office. The woman who had once been so surefooted in her career has made strategic error after error recently. It has led the ordinary person on the street to ask who is advising her.

Yet the blame can't be put entirely on her senior advisers. She is a strong, independent woman who knows her own mind and wouldn't hesitate to disregard the advice of the backroom boys if she so desired.

One possible explanation is that her success in bringing the DUP to its best ever Assembly election victory last May could have gone to her head, and her instinctive political intelligence has been replaced by hubris.

By comparison, Sinn Féin has gained the upper hand precisely because it has abandoned its previously sacred tenet that the Stormont institutions must be protected at all costs.

The moment Martin McGuinness announced his resignation, the party's credibility shot up in nationalist areas. It's not that the Shinners' top tier can take credit for devising a smart, bold political strategy. They were forced to change course by an angry grassroots who viewed them as constantly sitting at the back of the bus.

Unlike Gerry Adams, Mr McGuinness displayed little ego in office and appeared willing to serve in Stormont regardless what the DUP threw at him.

But Mrs Foster's perceived arrogance - and the DUP's decision to cut £50,000 Liofa funding to send children to the Gaeltacht while it had just blown 10,000 times that sum on the RHI scheme - created the conditions that forced Sinn Féin to toughen up. And then when it did, it saw how popular that move was with its base and it has no reason to throw the DUP any lifeline.

So far the RHI scandal has hurt only the DUP but if anything emerges linking senior Sinn Féin figures to it, the party will be damaged. Yet for now, Sinn Féin has energised its grassroots.

Despite its talented young team of MLAs, the SDLP's already greatly reduced vote is under renewed pressure.

For all its bravado, the DUP is dreading the election. The next Assembly will have 90, rather than 108 members, as the North moves from six- to five-seater constituencies which means that sitting DUP MLAs may not even be selected to contest the election. The DUP will hope that talk of Mr Adams' possible return to Stormont is true. So strongly do ordinary unionists despise the Sinn Féin president personally that nothing could better help Mrs Foster recover support.

But the candidate now favourite to replace Mr McGuinness is Sinn Féin's young health minister Michelle O'Neill. Her affable manner and lack of IRA baggage would make it hard for the DUP to cast her as a political bogeyman.

Some old hands in local politics predict that, despite the anger currently on the streets over 'cash for ash', the tribal drumbeat will resonate with unionist voters as polling day nears and, with a heavy heart, they will vote DUP.

But Brexit and Donald Trump's election show that, in politics today, nothing is certain. The big question is whether the winds of change, that have brought unexpected results across the world, will finally sweep across Northern Ireland.

Irish Independent

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