Belfast Telegraph

DUP conference: If a week is a long time in politics, the last year must feel like an eternity for Arlene Foster

The past 12 months have been tempestuous for the party leader, but she has demonstrated that, in an ever-changing world, the successful politican is the one who can adapt the best

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Last year's DUP conference was held in October. Donald Trump hadn't even been elected US President yet. It was another world.

Addressing the party faithful for the first time as leader that month, Arlene Foster was in ebullient form: "Conference, what a year it has been!"

She had every reason to boast. The DUP had emerged strongly from Assembly elections just a few months earlier. A new power sharing Executive had been launched with a fanfare. The first female First Minister was fresh from attending a joint ministerial meeting at Downing Street alongside her Sinn Fein deputy, Martin McGuinness, in a show of unity, to press for Northern Ireland's "unique circumstances" to be recognised post-Brexit.

It was, as she told delegates at La Mon House Hotel, looking back at the preceding deadlock, "a very different scenario from where we were a year ago".

The DUP leader could have borrowed those exact same words to open the keynote speech to her second party conference as leader this weekend, too. Unfortunately, the words would have held an entirely opposite meaning. The positives from last year have mutated into negatives; promise has collapsed into discontent; local politics is back to being a byword for dysfunction and stagnation.

Arlene Foster did not shy away from that reality at the weekend, telling delegates: "If the last year has proved anything, it is that we live in an uncertain world." Clearly the woman has a genius for understatement.

In truth, it didn't take long after last year's conference for everything to start falling apart. Those three little words "ash for cash" were about to enter the political vocabulary.

The row over Arlene's role in pushing the Renewable Heating Initiative had been brewing behind the scenes for months, but as estimates of valuable revenue lost to the scheme kept rising, there were soon calls by everyone from Stormont's newly formed Opposition to wee Jamie Bryson for the First Minister to stand aside pending an inquiry.

Sinn Fein had little inclination to defend devolution, having been in a state of giddiness ever since the Brexit poll earlier that summer seemingly opened the door to unpicking Northern Ireland's place in the UK. The Assembly's fate was sealed.

Mrs Foster could, arguably, have saved the day by stepping aside temporarily, but she didn't want her enemies to have that scalp.

She came out fighting with a bravura performance at Stormont which only annoyed her critics by being so powerful. Whether or not she did the right thing will be debated for years, but it was consistent with the DUP leader's toughness, the very quality which endears her to her supporters.

The Assembly election that followed proved much trickier than the first one she'd fought as leader the previous year. In the febrile atmosphere of a campaign, Foster's dismissal of demands for a standalone Irish Language Act with the words "if you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back and looking for more" were easily spun as an insulting attack on Irish identity itself.

Sinn Fein adeptly exploited the controversy, and the results saw them come within a whisker of becoming the largest party in Northern Ireland for the first time ever. Five months on from 2016's triumphant DUP party conference, it would have been easy to paint an unflattering picture of Arlene Foster after February's result as a stubborn dogmatist who'd thrown away a golden opportunity.

The next few months, however, showed that she did have the capacity to learn. She expressed what felt like genuine regret for the crocodile remark by reaching out to Irish language speakers, whilst attending IRA leader Martin McGuinness's funeral mass in the Bogside demonstrated a capacity for making symbolic gestures.

When the surprise general election was called, she got her reward as a hung parliament left the DUP in a position to extract concessions from the minority Tory government in return for their support.

The political pendulum in Northern Ireland was now swinging back and forth with dramatic regularity.

Suddenly it was SF which was on the back foot. Hanging tough during negotiations at Westminster to win the best deal for Northern Ireland also paid dividends. Arlene Foster's team looked again like serious operators, but it didn't change the fundamentals. There was still no agreement in Belfast, and talks dragged on. And on.

As she rose to speak at the La Mon House this weekend, everyone knew that the chances of restoring devolved government in the near future were remote. This was the context in which she had to make her pitch, not only to DUP true believers, but beyond the room as well.

The mark of a good politician is how well he or she adapts to new circumstances. Arlene Foster does not give the impression of being a woman who gets her kicks from rolling crises or interminable talks about talks. She just wants to get on with the job, so this year has not suited her at all. Her frustration is palpable, whereas SF appears quite relaxed about being out of office. Opposition fits the party temperamentally.

One way of judging her speech to the conference this weekend would be on how well it cut that ground from under SF's complacency and opened the door back towards power sharing. Judged in that light, there was nothing in Saturday's speech that changed the current dynamic. Her words were designed to reassure the broader unionist family.

At the same time, her speech was interesting for recognising that public arguments are now increasingly conducted through a cultural, not merely a narrow political, lens. In saying that a respect for Irish culture does not threaten the Union, she rightly married that to a call for republicans to also respect British identity.

"What we oppose," she said, "is using the cloak of rights as a Trojan horse designed to break unionists."

The reference to Gerry Adams' infamously nasty remark about equality being a ruse to "break these b*******" was pointed and effective. This gets to the heart of the contradiction in Sinn Fein. Republicans respond with high dudgeon when Irishness is maligned, but treat Britishness with scornful derision, almost as if were a bad joke.

How effective Arlene Foster proves at articulating that message may determine the shape of her leader's speech to next year's party conference, though only a mug would dare to make predictions these days. As the Fermanagh woman has discovered all too well over the last twelve months, there are no guarantees in politics.

The world is changing too quickly. The future belongs to those versatile enough to change with it.

Belfast Telegraph

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