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Time will tell if Arlene Foster can pass acid tests

By Rick Wilford

Published 22/12/2015

New leader of the DUP Arlene Foster after being chosen as party leader of the DUP
New leader of the DUP Arlene Foster after being chosen as party leader of the DUP
New leader of the DUP Arlene Foster sharing a joke with former party leader Peter Robinson
New leader of the DUP Arlene Foster with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness

Arlene Foster has, in short order, to unite the modernising and conservative wings of her party, defend a record haul of 38 seats in May's Assembly elections and stop Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister. No pressure then.

The style of leadership may change, but the fundamental values of this party will not.

Arlene Foster,

December 17, 2015

During her acceptance speech as the DUP's newly "elected" leader, one phrase employed by Arlene Foster caught the eye, namely that on her watch "the style of leadership may change".

What might this mean? One clue rests on her remark that, to make Northern Ireland work, the party needs to "focus on ideas not ideologies". This implies that, with the Union secure, a simple Blair-like test of "if it works, do it" will be applied to policy options.

It wouldn't mean that policy choices are value-free, rather that the premium is placed on effectiveness and efficiency as the guide to those choices, rather than first moral principles.

In turn, this suggests a disposition towards pragmatism, akin to that displayed by her predecessor, and a preparedness to adopt an evidence-led approach to policy-making.

The latter is exemplified by her supportive response to Simon Hamilton's intention to base his decision about the "gay blood" ban on the weight of scientific evidence, rather than personal morality - or blind prejudice.

But one needs to exercise some caution here. Mrs Foster is not a supporter of same-sex marriage, although she is not unsympathetic to a change in abortion law in cases of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA).

What seems persuasive about her stance on both FFA and "gay blood" is her willingness to endorse evidence-based policy-making, rather than rely on a rigid moral calculus.

In these cases, she appears as a potential innovator-cum-reformer and that may give us an indication of where her style of leadership could lead Northern Ireland in the foreseeable future. But what in general do we mean by leadership style?

A significant volume of research has identified a range of political leadership types, based largely on studies of US presidents and which have been extended more recently to encompass successive UK prime ministers.

One influential classification identifies four types: innovators, reformers, egoists and balancers, albeit that in reality any single prime minister or president will exhibit aspects of each type during her or his period in office.

While this typology has some value, a more helpful frame- work was developed by the US academic Fred Greenstein to analyse the character and skills of American presidents. He identified six facets of political leadership that combine to produce a discernible leadership style: proficiency as public communicators; organisational ability; political skills; policy vision; cognitive style; and emotional intelligence.

Deploying the framework can perhaps help in, if not predicting, then at least identifying the kinds of demands that will confront Mrs Foster as both party leader and First Minister - assuming the DUP remains top of the political heap come the Assembly election in May - and how she might react to them.

That said, the two roles aren't of course interchangeable: each provides a distinctive set of opportunities and constraints and will require the application of leadership attributes in varying measure.

Equally, context and audiences matter. There are at least five spheres in which Mrs Foster has to operate: OFMDFM, the Executive, the Assembly, the party and the wider, primarily unionist, electorate.

In addition, she has to relate to her counterparts in the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland as well as on the international stage, not least in attracting inward investment.

Moreover, Northern Ireland's periodic lapses into political crisis in themselves produce immediate pressures on party leaders: how she responds to such situations will provide further insight into her style of leadership, as will her demeanour in responding to the attendant media scrutiny.

To date, how does Mrs Foster fare in terms of Greenstein's framework?

First, she is an effective public communicator, whether speaking in rational vein, as in making the case for "Northern Ireland PLC", or descending into a visceral spasm, as instanced by lambasting both those she perceives as "rogue" and "renegade" nationalist ministers and those she describes as "sneerers and snarlers" within the dysfunctional unionist family.

How she balances the rational and visceral - both in the run-up to the May election, when the gloves come off, and when the votes are finally counted - will be tests of her effectiveness in communicating with the wider public, not just the party faithful.

Her organisational ability is as yet largely untested. She has headed three devolved departments and had two brief stints as acting First Minister, but leading a party and jointly presiding over a power-sharing Executive each present problems of a different order of magnitude.

She is yet to confront the day and daily limits of sustaining a loveless political cohabitation with Martin McGuinness. By her own admission, she has no personal relationships with anyone in Sinn Fein, but is committed to a working relationship with its leaders.

Quite frankly, there is no alternative given the design of the institutions: she, like Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, has to make a virtue out of a political necessity. But there will be no "laddish" banter which occasionally surfaced in the troubled dynamic between Messrs Robinson and McGuinness that helped to oil the wheels of the governing machine.

She and Mr McGuinness also have to manage organisational change in the near future, given the impending reduction in the number of departments and the consequential hollowing out of OFMDFM in the wake of the election.

How, in fact whether, they will transform the office from an over-cluttered and slow-moving department into an agile, strategic Executive hub will be an acid test of their organisational ability.

On the party front, gearing up the DUP for the election is another early organisational challenge for Mrs Foster, especially given its commanding performance in 2011.

The loss of seats to other unionist parties, especially if the losses enable Sinn Fein to emerge as the largest party, would see the premature end of any honeymoon period and plunge the DUP into turmoil. There could be no more acid test of her leadership than such a prospect.

Turning to her political skills, the focus here lies in assessing her success in persuading, negotiating and deal-making to make the devolved system work. It requires reliable political antennae, political sensitivity, the capacity to give as much as take and intuition, a quality that is by no means monopolised by women.

A looming intra-party test of her political skills will be choosing her successor as finance minister. Which wing of the party will she favour: someone from the technocratic, modernising end, or a traditional conservative? Balancing competing interests within any political party is an art, even a dark one, for any leader and her choice will give us some sense of where she wishes to lead the party, as will a more extensive ministerial reshuffle in the wake of the May election.

Given her belief that the Union is secure - as she said in her speech, "the constitutional question is settled" - making Northern Ireland work is her objective and her aims include the achievement of a more harmonious society.

This is a policy vision that prioritises health, education and the economy, each of which present difficult choices. On the economic front, Northern Ireland requires significant investment in its key resource, human capital. As a self-professed "ideas" person rather than an ideological warrior, the extent to which she is prepared to innovate and reform in order to develop a highly-skilled working population will tell us how far she is prepared or, more properly, allowed to go in realising her vision.

Is she, for instance, amenable to the case for introducing revenue-raising measures to pursue her vision, or will she rely on cutting public spending to accomplish the same ends?

As for her cognitive style, her stress on ideas suggests a rational approach to decision-making rather than an instinctive one, although the risk here is one of becoming bogged down in the minutiae of problem-solving, of becoming consumed by detail, a trait that contributed to Gordon Brown's demise.

Political leaders need to be flexible, disposed to compromise and be prepared to listen to advice, attributes that she appears to favour. As for her emotional intelligence, I'm in no position to judge.

But, as someone once said, in terms of leadership style a first-class temperament may be more important than a first-class intellect.

  • Dr Rick Wilford is professor of politics at the school of politics, international studies and philosophy at Queen's University, Belfast

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