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NI Election: Arlene Foster can't shut her eyes to reality she is last person we need as First Minister

By Edmund Curran

The wreckage of unionism is strewn all over Stormont this March day. Lord Edward Carson, the founding father of unionism, still points to the sky from his pedestal, not in victory but in the hope that someone from above can come to the rescue on Ulster's political battlefield.

The leader and the deputy leader of the Ulster Unionists and the chairman of the Democratic Unionists are among the casualties. Many more were brought to their knees in an election that could have been avoided, that few unionists wanted, and that has changed the politics of Northern Ireland, perhaps for ever.

Unionism, the assertive, dominant force since the foundation of this state in 1921, finds itself in a place it has never been before.

Former First Minister Arlene Foster may try to place the blame on others, as she has done with the scandal of RHI, but the votes cast and the number of unionist MLAs returned cannot be so easily excused away.

Unionists of all shades - mainstream, moderate and hardline - need to engage in a soul-searching inquest. The fact that Mike Nesbitt so swiftly relinquished his leadership of the Ulster Unionists should not mean that Foster can ignore a similar fate in the DUP.

Perhaps not since the days of Captain Terence O'Neill has a unionist leader faced and resisted so much vilification as Foster. Until events overtook her last autumn, she seemed unassailable, having just led her party to its best ever electoral result.

Unionism brought this electoral disaster upon itself. Foster's fall in so short a time is of her own making.

Her predecessor Peter Robinson said last week that he had warned her after a brief honeymoon period "they" would come after her.

Unfortunately, the warning signs were shrugged off arrogantly and she and her party made the wrong calls over RHI and in the strategy they chose to fight last week's election.

"If you feed a crocodile, they will only come back for more."

That one throwaway line from Foster may have delighted some of her tough-talking supporters in the border counties, but we know now from the astonishing rise in Sinn Fein's support that the DUP leader's words lit a green touch paper across Northern Ireland.

Her crocodile comment will haunt unionism.

All of that said, Foster is still the leader of the largest party in the new Assembly, democratically-elected and, unless she or her party think otherwise, entitled to be nominated for the post of First Minister of Northern Ireland.

It is her call, as East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson said at the weekend. The question is whether Foster as First Minister can command sufficient respect, not only within the Stormont Executive and Assembly but in the wider community, after such a bruising and brutal month of electioneering.

Shaken and surely stirred by losing more than a quarter of its MLAs, the DUP cannot afford to take another wrong turning.

There are precedents for not having the leader of the party as First Minister - John Hume of the SDLP deferred to Seamus Mallon, Gerry Adams to Martin McGuinness, and, more recently, Peter Robinson to Foster herself.

It isn't only Sinn Fein that believes she should stand aside while her role in the RHI scandal is fully investigated.

That view is shared by all the other major parties, and most likely by a majority of people in Northern Ireland.

If the DUP wants to demonstrate that it has learnt anything from the election results, then it could begin by internally reviewing how far it has been out of step on the RHI issue with a broad section of the community, and not just republicans.

Somehow the DUP has to climb down from the pedestal of arrogance upon which Foster and others around her have perched themselves over RHI and other contentious issues. By their attitude they have only succeeded in inspiring a nationalist revival and come perilously close to losing their voice as the largest party at Stormont. Blaming the BBC and other media does the DUP no service at all.

Rather than blame others, the party needs to take a long, hard look at itself, how it handles the media and how, in the light of the RHI experience, it can deliver more not less openness and transparency about how it does business.

These are trying times for the image and future direction of unionism. It is being challenged to show more respect and understanding to the nationalist community.

At the same time, unionist leaders must defend and promote the pro-British culture of their own supporters and ensure that the Union remains intact.

Foster's crocodile remark was crass in the extreme. It betrayed an attitude of mind that belongs to the past and which none of the parties committed to proper power-sharing should demonstrate.

It revived concerns within the wider nationalist community about whether the DUP had any heart in continuing with power-sharing, even though Ian Paisley and Robinson worked through difficult crises with Sinn Fein for almost a decade.

The RHI scandal has not gone away. It will be many months before Foster and the community at large knows of Sir Patrick Coghlin's judgment.

The DUP should have dealt with Foster's role as First Minister and required her to stand aside last December, without allowing the issue to become a political football which Sinn Fein has kicked with relish.

The priority now for Northern Ireland is to have a return to business at Stormont with a budget, in order that health and education services are not left in limbo any longer and the needs of the community are met.

The DUP is entitled to retain the role of First Minister, but surely Foster can see that the greater good, not only for the community but also for unionism, would be served by her stepping aside and allowing another nominee for First Minister, most likely Simon Hamilton.

Whoever is nominated needs to offer this community a real hope that inter-party talks can achieve a new, stable Stormont.

Sadly, for all her early promise, Foster has let unionism down.

The prize of a truly fresh start for Northern Ireland as it approaches the centenary of its birth is infinitely more important than insisting that no one else but her can do the First Minister's job.

Results centre - select a constituency - every result as it happened -

North Antrim - East Antrim - South Antrim - North Belfast - East Belfast - South Belfast - West Belfast - Strangford - South Down - Lagan Valley - Upper Bann - Newry and Armagh - Fermanagh & South Tyrone - West Tyrone - Mid Ulster - East Londonderry - Foyle - North Down

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