Belfast Telegraph

Rick Wilford: Arlene Foster is engaged in high-stakes poker with the Conservative Government ... she should be careful not to overplay her hand

The DUP's 'confidence and supply' arrangement with the Tories was always going to be temporary, but it may be even more fleeting than either side envisaged, writes Rick Wilford

All smiles from Arlene Foster, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Theresa May and Tory chief whip Gavin Williamson after the DUP agreed to support the minority Government
All smiles from Arlene Foster, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Theresa May and Tory chief whip Gavin Williamson after the DUP agreed to support the minority Government

In December 2015, shortly after she was anointed as Peter Robinson's successor, I wrote a piece for this newspaper speculating on Arlene Foster's potential leadership style. I didn't come to any firm conclusions, but rather sketched out the attributes of political leadership as a yardstick by which we might measure her future performance - and, impliedly, that of our other party leaders.

Almost three years on, against the background of both a much altered local and national political landscape, how has she fared? More particularly, how has Mrs Foster contended with the enormity of Brexit, which is laden with all the characteristics of a political crisis: high cost, high risk, a high degree of uncertainty and high time pressure.

Assessing Mrs Foster's (or, indeed, others') leadership means judging her proficiency as public communicator; organisational ability; political skills; policy vision; cognitive style, and her emotional intelligence. I haven't got the space to explore each of these traits in any depth, so will be necessarily, perhaps unfairly, selective.

As far as organisational ability is concerned, one might cite the RHI Inquiry's revelations about the chronic dysfunctionality within the DUP, including the less than amicable relationships between and among a number of Spads and, in turn, between them and a former minister, together with the long leash allowed to some special advisers, who appear to have acted with an alarming level of relative autonomy.

All governments rely on such "hidden wiring" within their administrations to "get the job done", but when, as in the case of the RHI, that wiring is exposed as a short-circuiting network of relationships, something is clearly amiss. As both party leader and First Minister Mrs Foster is not only accountable for such a state of internal affairs - which she has acknowledged - she may yet have to shoulder responsibility for it.

In assessing the proficiency of politicians as public communicators, one must bear in mind that they have to address a variety of audiences ranging from the party faithful to implacable political opponents, whether within or outside one's own party. In relation to Brexit, as far as the DUP is concerned Mrs Foster has had and is having an easy ride, unlike the Prime Minister. The DUP's belief in exiting the EU remains resolute, whereas the Conservative and Labour parties are riven by internal dissent over this existential question.

On that basis Mrs Foster is on much surer ground than Theresa May in communicating her views, both within her party and to its voters, as are the leaders of our Remain parties.

However, the former First Minister represents a part of the UK that voted Remain and as yet has to persuade those who hold to the EU project that their futures will be assured outside the European Union - not least because Brexit has become an article of faith, in some cases dogma, rather than calm, reflective, evidence-based reasoning. In such a fevered context, trying to reconcile fundamentally opposed beliefs may well be a fool's errand, but political leaders have nevertheless to at least try to build agreement by practising the art of the possible. For Mrs Foster, however, the "precious Union" trumps all: put more prosaically, "better cling to nurse for fear of something worse". Hence, her metaphor of a "blood-red line" in response to the option of extended regulatory checks between Northern Ireland and Britain; a stance on her part that over-interprets the idea of a border in the Irish Sea (which already exists for a range of goods).

One cannot fault the DUP leader for her trenchant defence of the Union - she is, perhaps, first among her unionist equals - but on Brexit she does not speak for the Northern Ireland majority. Taking refuge in the fact that the UK as a whole voted Leave may be a necessary political device, but it isn't sufficient to address the vexatious border question or the weight of pro-EU public opinion in Northern Ireland.

And there is a cruel paradox at work here. While the Northern Ireland border sits at the heart of the Brexit negotiations, its politicians languish in the margins of those talks because of the absence of devolution, responsibility for which many place at the DUP's door.

Further, Mrs Foster's occasional lapses into colourful, even offensive, language - "rogues", "renegades", "crocodiles" - communicates antipathy to the "other", thereby aggravating rather than salving an open, communal wound. It makes the prospect, let alone the job, of co-governing a divided society doubly difficult.

The poll published earlier this week suggesting that 87% of Leave voters in Northern Ireland regard the collapse of the peace process as a price worth paying for Brexit - as do 75% of English Conservative voters - gives us more than pause for thought. Moreover, four out of five English Tory supporters support Scottish independence, while UK taxpayers wherever they live are unhappy about their taxes being spent elsewhere other than their own territory, whether in England, Scotland, Wales - or indeed Northern Ireland.

The point is that the "precious Union" is in a fluid state: there are strong centrifugal forces at work both in Scotland and Northern Ireland and either a "hard" Brexit or "no-deal" will only increase their momentum. Such shifting ground is a parlous place to pitch one's political tent, especially when its climate is heavily influenced by English nationalist sentiment, which may find the prospect of renewed direct rule as unappetising a prospect as Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

Post-devolution the UK became a state of unions between London, Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh, no longer a unitary state. These unions are not uniform. Our devolution "settlement" differed/differs from those in Wales and Scotland - indeed, we often pride (or shame) ourselves about Northern Ireland's singularity.

Is it inconsistent with that existing pattern of divergence to pursue a bespoke Brexit regulatory arrangement between Northern Ireland and both Britain and the Republic, especially one that advantages the Northern Ireland economy?

Threatening to withdraw from its confidence and supply arrangement with the Conservative Government, or to vote against its Budget later this month (which more or less amounts to the same thing), if such a Brexit deal is on offer is a risky strategy for the DUP and its leader. The current DUP-Conservative arrangement is, lest we forget, a temporary one. Indeed, it may prove very short-lived if an early general election - or a second EU referendum - proves unavoidable. Either would only add to existing political uncertainties.

Mrs Foster should be wary of overplaying the DUP's hand at Westminster, not least in a context where English public opinion in particular is not unreservedly sympathetic to Northern Ireland.

That is to say, her political skills and policy vision need to transcend a narrow and unnecessarily limiting understanding of Brexit. A display of emotional intelligence by the DUP leader - and other party leaders for that matter - that demonstrates pragmatism rather than blind faith, which embraces accommodation instead of rigidity, should be perceived as strength of political leadership, not a weakness.

We need to remember that whatever the Brexit outcome may be - hard, soft, or something in between - it will not damage the principle of consent upon which Northern Ireland's constitutional future rests.

  • Rick Wilford is Professor of Politics at Queen's University Belfast

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