Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster may be down but she's far from out as DUP leader now facing a fight on all fronts

By Ed Curran

Today the Executive is functioning better than at any stage since the restoration of devolution in 1999."

The words of Arlene Foster in a buoyant mood as she stood before DUP delegates as leader and First Minister last October.

With rapturous applause throughout her speech, it appeared she could do no wrong. The previous May her party had equalled its best result in any Assembly election, with 38 seats and close to 30% of the first preference votes cast, easily eclipsing the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein.

Perhaps the result would have been different had voters known what they do now. The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal had not surfaced, even though the bills were already recognised and the staggering cost being counted behind closed doors at Stormont.

Whether it was the row between Foster and then-Economy Minister Jonathan Bell, which they revealed in interviews with the BBC's Stephen Nolan, or how the RHI scheme was so flawed and out of control, the electorate had no inkling last May.

Nor was there the remotest reference to RHI last October in Foster's optimistic conference address.

Instead she set out her vision, and told cheering delegates: "I sought the leadership of this party for a single purpose - to use this office to build a better, more prosperous Northern Ireland for all, in a stronger United Kingdom."

Yet, even as she spoke, she and others listening to her must have been alarmed at the RHI consequences. Ten weeks on, as we survey the wreckage at Stormont, much of the former First Minister's speech now seems surreal. For example, as the first female and the youngest unionist leader in the 95 years of Northern Ireland's history, she said she wanted the DUP to be the party for "all of unionism", a forlorn hope now as the biomass battle for the hearts and minds of pro-Union voters has already begun even before any election is called.

The undiluted optimism of Foster has been replaced with the grimmest of outlooks for the future of Stormont.

Rather than devolution working better than at any time, it is now on the point of collapse barely a year since she took office. Their nickname 'Marlene' is now meaningless as she and Martin McGuinness enter into a very acrimonious political divorce and go their separate ways from the Office of First and Deputy First Minister.

Indeed, there is no guarantee that she will be First Minister again given the extent of the RHI scandal, the flaws and mistakes which were made, and the public suspicions that the full story has yet to be told. Further revelations may still come out of not just the woodwork at Stormont, but the wood-burning boilers across Northern Ireland.

In the absence of a full-scale inquiry many questions remain unanswered, not least for Foster. What meetings and conversations did she have with her department's energy officials?

What questions if any did she ask about cost controls?

As the minister who was in charge of energy, who does she believe should shoulder the blame for RHI?

What was her precise role in the eventual closure of the scheme?

Why was the closure of the scheme delayed, by whom and for what reason, before more than 900 more applicants had submitted their forms?

No doubt these and other questions will surface during the election campaign from the other parties and also the media. More answers will be expected from DUP candidates and the party leader.

If ever there was an opportunity for the Ulster Unionist Party to stem its losses of the past decade, to take advantage of Foster's dented image and damaged credibility, and to regain seats from the DUP, it is surely now.

However, the questions are whether Mike Nesbitt has the leadership qualities, his party has the organisation, and the unionist electorate is sufficiently annoyed with Foster and the DUP to switch political allegiance in the secrecy of the ballot box on election day.

Before Gerry Adams's outspoken comments at the weekend and subsequent resignation of McGuinness, the issue may have seemed more clear-cut in unionist minds.

One subject - the RHI scandal, and Foster's and the DUP's part in it - dominated the public's concern.

Now the Sinn Fein leadership has widened the debate by producing a long shopping list of grievances against the DUP and the British Government, and, in so doing, annoyed and unnerved mainstream unionism.

Adams may prove to be the best recruiting sergeant that Foster has to retain support within the unionist community.

When Sinn Fein takes off the gloves, as has happened this week, past history tells us unionists retreat to the trenches.

It follows that the undoubted annoyance and anger of many unionists at the RHI scandal may disappear at the ballot box the louder Adams is heard.

Even before an election is called, the script can be written for it.

Foster will point to her tough leadership, determined not to bow the knee to Sinn Fein, to resist unreasonable republican demands, and to preserve and fight for unionist rights.

She will paint the Ulster Unionists, as the DUP has always done, as weak and unduly moderate.

Nesbitt, for his part, must keep the focus of attention on the RHI scandal, on the failure of the DUP and Sinn Fein to share power, and the willingness of both his party and the SDLP to provide a workable alternative.

Electorally, the odds are heavily stacked against him.

First, the reduction of seats from 108 to 90 in the next Assembly election damages the chances of those who scraped through in the final counts last May.

Removing 18 seats from Stormont is not likely to alter the overall balance of power, but the timing of the change could not be worse for the smaller parties and independents.

Second, the unionist electorate is now virtually irreversibly skewed towards the DUP.

Not even an upheaval of Donald Trump proportions would be enough to turn the Ulster Unionists into the largest unionist party, given it recorded only 87,302 first preference votes at the last election compared to the DUP's 202,567. As Foster pointed out in her conference speech, the DUP was the largest unionist party in each of the 18 constituencies.

Whatever wishful thinking may be among a section of the unionist public that the RHI scandal will damage Foster and the DUP must be weighed against electoral reality.

The best the Ulster Unionists can hope for, as Nesbitt noted yesterday, is that it will be "a stronger party in Opposition" and that the dominance of the DUP will be reduced.

That conclusion in itself is hardly a vote-catcher for the Ulster Unionists since Foster - down but far from out - will play the same card as has been so successful in the past for her party.

She will surely claim that since the Ulster Unionists have no hope of forming an Executive, unionist strength lies in the number of DUP MLAs returned to office. That, she would say, is the only way in which a Sinn Fein First Minister can be avoided.

Only 54.9% of the electorate voted last May, down 15% in the two decades since the Good Friday agreement was signed.

Now there is the very real danger for all the parties that the downward trend in voting habits will continue as more people are disillusioned with devolution through the RHI scandal.

So the battle lines between Foster and Nesbitt are drawn clearly. The bitter divisions which surfaced more than 50 years ago between different shades of unionism are now cemented in the white stone walls of Stormont.

In her conference speech, Foster said: "Now is the time for us to step forward, not just as the leading unionist party, but the party for all of unionism."

The flames of the RHI scandal have consigned that aspiration to ashes.

The founding father of unionism, Sir Edward Carson, whose remains lie by the side wall of St Anne's Cathedral, may be turning in his grave.

For all the political battles and violent events of the past century, neither he nor anyone else could have foreseen that the unionist governance of the state he helped to found, might be set on fire in a biomass boiler.

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