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Arlene Foster's first priority a rising UUP

Arlene Foster takes over as First Minister next Monday. But, with just 118 days to go until the Assembly elections, her main challenge is to burst Mike Nesbitt's bubble, says Alex Kane

Published 07/01/2016

DUP leader Arlene Foster
DUP leader Arlene Foster

At some point next Monday, January 11, Arlene Foster will be nominated and then elected as First Minister. First Minister in her own right this time, not just filling in for a few weeks and looking over her shoulder for a nod of approval from Peter Robinson.

Her position is also much stronger than it would have been had she been required to consult with Nigel Dodds - as party leader - before making decisions. She is her own boss.

And while it looks like Robinson may now stay in the Assembly until the end of this mandate - rather than step down and allow a replacement to be co-opted - it is unlikely that he will keep a hand on the tiller.

Her priority, of course, is the Assembly election on May 5, and her main challenge is from the UUP rather than Sinn Fein. A couple of years ago the DUP didn't worry about Mike Nesbitt. They didn't have to worry about him because every time he opened his mouth he put his foot in it.

He was tetchy in interviews, his "vision" was incoherent and he sounded like he was just making up policy as he went along. His line about "recovery requiring two election cycles" was interpreted by the DUP - and by me, too, as it happens - as a pre-packaged excuse for not doing well.

But then the UUP did begin to do well. It got rid of problematic figures like David McNarry, John McCallister and Basil McCrea. Nesbitt took no nonsense from others whom he regarded as disloyal. The party did better in the local council and general elections than anyone had expected.

It has attracted defectors from other parties. It wrong-footed the DUP when it withdrew Danny Kennedy from the Executive. And, so far, it has avoided any spectacular own-goals.

So, when Nesbitt says that the UUP is going to do well in a few months' time, the media and other political parties are taking him seriously.

Foster's first job as leader is to burst the UUP bubble. She does not want to be touring the media studios on May 6 explaining why the UUP has done well - particularly at the DUP's expense. She does not want a strong UUP Assembly group setting itself up as a credible opposition to a DUP/Sinn Fein coalition.

She does not want the old guard of the DUP (in spite of what she says, there is an old guard) getting jittery and wondering if her elevation was a political and electoral mistake. The DUP has got used to winning.

What she has to do, therefore, is convince unionists - particularly those who have concerns that the legacy issue is being ignored, that the IRA Army Council still has an everyday influence over Sinn Fein and that the DUP and Sinn Fein are just running a self-serving cartel - that her leadership of the DUP will make a difference for the better.

In 2007 and 2011 the DUP was able to play the "vote DUP to stop Martin McGuinness being First Minister" card, but that won't be as easy this time. Partly because there is so little evidence to suggest that Sinn Fein is on an electoral roll, but mostly because it is very difficult to play that card against a background where the DUP and Sinn Fein negotiated and took joint responsibility for the Fresh Start agreement.

In other words, she has to play a more subtle hand; persuade unionists to accept that a DUP/Sinn Fein axis is preferable to any other combination. Trying to scare unionists into voting for the DUP isn't going to work this time.

She not only has to convince unionists that she is a better option, she also has to explain why voting UUP or TUV would be against the best interests of unionism.

And that means a pretty brutal intra-unionist battle lies ahead. So brutal, in fact, that you can dismiss the prospect of some sort of last-gasp election pact between them.

The DUP hasn't had to fight this sort of campaign before. Until 1998 it was the poor relation of the UUP. Between 2003 and 2015 it was the buoyant, confident, electorally successful alternative to "rollover unionism". Yet, today, it has to explain why it seems so comfortable with Sinn Fein, even though very little ever seems to be done. It's a difficult pitch for the party, particularly at a time when it has the UUP, TUV, PUP and Ukip all capable of snatching seats from it.

She also needs to put her own stamp on the DUP, if only to distance her from the Robinson identity. He controlled every single aspect of the DUP (and, as I wrote last year, he had already decided she was to be his successor), so she has to earn loyalty in her own right.

She has the opportunity next week of a reshuffle to replace herself as Finance Minister and to deal with the problem that three of the DUP's ministers (Hamilton, Bell and McIllveen) are based in Strangford and that two of them are ex-UUP.

She'll want to send a signal to the broader party and build a few bridges.

The other thing she'll need to do is sort out the relationship with Sinn Fein. Even though Robinson and McGuinness have insisted that they had a good personal relationship, the general view was that the DUP/Sinn Fein relationship was fractious and destructive.

She needs to construct a mutually agreed strategy with Sinn Fein for ending that fractiousness and ensuring that they can deliver policy together.

And she needs to bear in mind that it may not be McGuinness she is dealing with.

He has been deputy to both Ian Paisley and Robinson since 2007, and it can't be taken for granted that he fancies another four years as deputy to someone else.

Sinn Fein are masters of surprise. It likes to stir the pot and catch other people off guard. So I wouldn't be all that surprised if, at some point after the elections (the Republic's one is due around the same time), it decided to replace McGuinness. The DUP has taken a calculated gamble with Foster. It sees her as an answer to the "Peter problem" (similar to the UUP's "Trimble problem" in 2003) and as someone who can win over potential UUP voters and undermine Nesbitt.

It also sees her as someone who can attract the stay-at-home pro-Union female vote, particularly young professionals.

More importantly, it sees her as someone who can construct the sort of relationship with Sinn Fein that will make business easier and allow policies to be delivered.

This is the DUP's most important poll since November 2003, the contest in which Foster was first elected as an MLA - albeit for the Ulster Unionists.

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