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Alex Kane

Why DUP chief Arlene Foster will be in the hot seat on Late Late Show

Alex Kane

As the UK leaves the EU tomorrow night the First Minister will be attempting to woo an Irish audience, but as Alex Kane argues, she faces many challenges and will have to tread very carefully


Arlene Foster says she wants to speak to an Irish audience and emphasise she wants ‘a good neighbourly relationship'

Arlene Foster says she wants to speak to an Irish audience and emphasise she wants ‘a good neighbourly relationship'

Arlene Foster says she wants to speak to an Irish audience and emphasise she wants ‘a good neighbourly relationship'

I can't imagine that when the DUP was propping up the Theresa May and Boris Johnson Governments and working hand-in-glove with Rees-Mogg and the ERG cabal, Arlene Foster ever imagined she'd be spending one of the most important nights in the United Kingdom's post-war history sitting in a television studio in Dublin.

Yet, when the UK leaves the EU at 11pm tomorrow she'll be Ryan Tubridy's guest on RTE's flagship programme The Late Late Show.

She's doing it, she says, because: "On the night the UK exits the EU, it's important for me to speak to an Irish audience and emphasise that I want a good neighbourly relationship." Deep down, though, I'm pretty sure she'd much rather be sitting at a Boris-hosted 'do' in London celebrating an exit agreement that didn't threaten the constitutional integrity of Northern Ireland by including a border down the Irish Sea. And since the DUP hasn't arranged an official celebration of its own for the night (mind you, being 'betrayed' by two Prime Ministers in quick succession was never going to be an easy sell when it came to shifting tickets) I suppose trying to win over an Irish audience is the next best thing.

Leo Varadkar hasn't done her any favours in a weekend interview with the BBC in which he suggested that the UK's negotiating team will be outplayed and outflanked by the EU's team, meaning that the transition phase could last much longer than Johnson's one-year pledge. And nor has he helped her with his claim that a new GB/NI border is included in the agreement "in black and white". In other words, it could be a very tough interview for Foster, raising hugely difficult questions about the DUP's strategy and her leadership over the past three years, rather than becoming a platform for her to win over hearts and minds in the south. It's a risky venture, the sort of venture which won't please sections of unionism, including some within the DUP.

Foster will also need to tread carefully bearing in mind that the Irish election is just eight days after the interview. She doesn't want to say anything which could be construed as unhelpful to someone who could be the next Taoiseach; she doesn't want to leave a throwaway hostage to fortune line (think "crocodiles"); and she needs to err on the side of caution with Sinn Fein because she shares power with the party in Northern Ireland and it is not totally beyond the bounds of possibility it could slip into a coalition government in Dublin. That's a lot of potential elephant traps she needs to avoid in a live interview.

She has problems at home, too. The Orange Order is holding a special summit to give its considered overview and formal response to the New Decade, New Approach agreement. But already 12 lodges from Co Armagh have broken ranks and issued their own hostile statement, rejecting "stand-alone legislative provision" for the Irish language, accusing the DUP of not having consulted with its core vote, and claiming the proposed Ulster-Scots/British commissioner "had not been requested by its community, was ill-thought out and substantially weaker" than for the proposed Irish language commissioner.

Innocent Victims United, a coalition representing 23 groups with over 11,500 members, accused the DUP of ignoring their interests and says it should have rejected the deal. Spokesman Kenny Donaldson said: "The New Deal, New Approach deal commits to making legacy legislation in 100 days and as such should have been enough for those who claim to represent innocent victims to call time on the deal that was before them. Either legacy isn't a priority... or they do not possess the humility to retreat from legislation that will advance the ideology of the republican movement."

A little more worrying for the DUP leader is another apparent sideswipe (one of a number in the last couple of weeks) from East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson. In a recent blog for the think tank Politeia he notes: "However, despite foolishly including in the deal a wish list of projects and spending commitments which were never deliverable even with the most generous of allocations of money (through the block grant from central government), none of the parties had sought assurances on the amount of money which would be allocated to the newly formed Executive. Now the Finance Minister is calling foul and demanding the funding package be increased, but at a time when any negotiating leverage has gone."

The DUP has an array of other problems too, although it's harder to gauge their potential impact on the party. Both the TUV and UUP remain sceptical about the agreement, with the UUP reconfirming that it has not "signed up to or endorsed the new deal"; while one of its most senior members told me a few days ago: "We still won't support the legacy proposals or language commissioners. If the DUP tries to undermine or throw out Robin (Health Minister Robin Swann) they need to remember his department would go to Sinn Fein."

Elements within loyalism don't like the deal either, arguing it concedes too much to Sinn Fein and rewards both it and the Irish Government for alleged intransigence. There is evidence on social media that some younger elements of loyalism believe the DUP has let them down; but, like the older end of loyalism, there doesn't appear to be a coherent response, let alone alternative. A vigorous social media campaign during the last election didn't stop the loss of two DUP seats or a significant slip in the DUP's overall vote, so I'm not sure what they can or would do in the event that Johnson pushes ahead with his Irish Sea border proposals. Meanwhile, the PUP is calling for a unionist convention to consider all of the challenges facing unionism in the next few years, particularly in the run-up to Northern Ireland's centenary in 2021.

The biggest challenge of all facing the DUP and Brexit (and while the RHI report will probably be uncomfortable reading for the party, I don't expect anything catastrophic for the leadership) remains the fact that it doesn't seem to have a blocking strategy to prevent, in the words of a DUP MLA, "Boris' bloody border". The party can point to some solidarity last week when the Assembly rejected his agreement as it stands - albeit for different reasons - but that rejection means nothing to him. Indeed, he will have expected it, but since he has the votes he needs, he doesn't care.

But it will matter to the DUP and unionism generally if he gets his way. Because the moment he gets his way will become the greatest challenge unionism has faced, a challenge which the DUP's strategy since its deal with Theresa May in June 2017 has been instrumental in creating.

Challenges, of course, always require new thinking. The first was a headlong dash back to the Assembly with a deal much worse than the one available two years ago. The second seems to be a charm offensive south of the only border the DUP likes. Foster and her strategists will be praying that it isn't the Too Late Late Show.

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