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Arlene Foster's tarnished image could see DUP battered at the polling booths

By Suzanne Breen

Published 14/01/2017

Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster
Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster

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 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 Peter Robinson doing something so humorously down-to-earth.

The entire exchange appeared certain to set the likely tone for Arlene Foster's tenure as First Minister - relaxed, quick-witted, and in touch with real people.

That was only a year ago, yet it seems like another political lifetime.

Today, Arlene Foster stands as the most ridiculed political leader in Northern Ireland's history.

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 we look set to go to the polls next month, what must worry the DUP is that this image of Arlene isn't restricted to nationalists, 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 are disgusted by events. 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 outside of Sinn Fein.

A frail and deeply ill Deputy First Minister chose to make his way to Stormont to announce his resignation and answer media questions. 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 Fein 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.

That was unfair on Elizabeth II, who is always pitch perfect and knows her audience.

Reading from an autocue like an amateur anchorwoman, Mrs Foster again apologised for the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme which is set to cost taxpayers almost £500m.

But 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.

She mentioned Sinn Fein a staggering eight times in two minutes. But attempting to appeal to sectarian sensibilities in this scandal isn't working for her party in the way it has so often in the past.

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 election, Mrs Foster may not survive as DUP leader. The perplexing aspect of the RHI crisis is that she could have avoided it all, had she ceded to Sinn Fein's simple request to step aside for four weeks.

The Assembly was about to break for Christmas anyway, and she would by now be back in office. The woman, once so surefooted, 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 explanation is that her success in bringing the DUP to its best ever Assembly election victory last year may have gone to her head, and her instinctive political intelligence has been replaced by hubris.

By comparison, Sinn Fein 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 bold, savvy 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 of what the DUP threw at him. "I watched in the Assembly as former IRA men and women sat as quiet as mice as the DUP humiliated them," says an SDLP MLA.

But Mrs Foster's perceived arrogance, and the Liofa funding decision, created the conditions that forced Sinn Fein to toughen up.

And then when it did, it saw how popular that move was with its base and it has now no reason to throw the DUP a lifeline

So far the RHI scandal has hurt only the DUP, but if anything emerges linking senior Sinn Fein figures to it, the party will be damaged.

Yet, for now, Sinn Fein has energised its grassroots who are saying: "The leadership have finally listened to us."

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

The DUP is clearly dreading the election. Many previously hard-working local activists might not even want to canvass and face public ire.

Just three months ago at its annual conference, the DUP paraded two councillors who had defected from the UUP, and boasted that more converts were on their way. Not only will that not happen, but the party could be set for local civil wars.

Smaller fields as we move from six-seat to five-seat constituencies will mean that some sitting DUP MLAs may not even be selected to contest the election.

That will inevitably lead to bitterness, as representatives - elected just eight months ago - feel they have been deprived, through no fault of their own, of the status and salary of five years in office.

The DUP will hope that talk of Gerry Adams' possible return to Stormont is true. So strongly do ordinary unionists despise him that nothing could better help Mrs Foster recover support.

But the candidate now favourite to replace Mr McGuinness is 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.

The DUP was so far ahead of the UUP in last May's election - 203,000 votes and 38 seats compared to 87,000 votes and 16 seats - that it can take a big hit and still emerge as the largest party. But if the DUP is transfer toxic, there is a chance that Sinn Fein - 167,000 votes and 28 seats - could overtake it.

Although that would surely spell the end of devolution, as it is unlikely the DUP would be willing to serve under a Sinn Fein First Minister.

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 unionists as polling day nears and, with a heavy heart, they will vote DUP as they have always done.

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.

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