David McIlveen: Arlene Foster is unlikely to lead the DUP into the next election

Arlene Foster
Arlene Foster
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Whilst it was clear from committee business in Stormont over the last few years that the now infamous Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was deeply flawed, I don’t think many people either inside or outside the Stormont bubble believed it would escalate to the ‘omnishambles’ we see now.

Looking at it objectively, £20 million of ‘wastage’ to the annual block grant, when set against other things, is a relatively small amount of money.

Furthermore, this money is not being thrown into The Irish Sea or, despite its literal sense, metaphorically not going up in smoke either, rather it is going into the pockets of local people (albeit in a fairly haphazard way) who inevitably will put a large proportion of it back into the local economy.

So, given that the RHI scandal was most likely driven more by a mixture of ineptitude and a desire to curry favour with the rural electorate rather than by something more sinister, why has it brought the honeymoon period of the DUP leader crashing down so quickly?

To answer this question context is important. In May 2016 ‘Arlene’s team’ walked the length and breadth of Northern Ireland asking you the electorate to vote for them.

To the DUP boffins, Arlene Foster seemed to tick all the boxes. She was female, young, socially moderate, yet tough on the issues that matter to unionists today such as identity and culture. Nigel Dodds appeared to be the natural successor to Peter Robinson, but when he stepped aside from the race, Arlene – aided by other influential figures within the party – quickly became the only realistic alternative.

Former DUP MLA, David McIlveen.

Former DUP MLA, David McIlveen.

The DUP election team quickly got to work on making the 2016 Assembly elections much more positive than previous ones. Rather than voting against Sinn Fein you were being asked to support ‘Arlene’s candidates’ a strategy that worked well given that the overall number of seats, which peaked in 2011 was maintained.

However, the big question is that if Assembly elections were to be held this year, rather than last, would the same strategy be used? Of course publicly most DUP representatives would say yes, however privately the many reps that I speak to would say something very different.

The reason for this is that, more than any other political party in Northern Ireland, the DUP are obsessed with elections. As soon as post-election marked registers become available party politicians and staff alike are scouring every detail to see which areas need to be targeted in order to improve things for the next election.

The party are now in a position that they have become used to winning elections and therefore anything that could potentially stand in the way of that must be isolated and eliminated as quickly as possible – even if that be one of its own members.

Whilst to the hierarchy of the party the ousting of the late Ian Paisley in 2008 was primarily about seizing control, to the normal elected member a picture was painted that the veteran leader, due to his perceived over friendly relationship with Martin McGuiness, had become an ‘electoral liability’.

Those two words strike fear into any career politician, and it was therefore not difficult to obtain the necessary signatures to bring Dr Paisley’s political career to an abrupt end.

In doing this however the culture of the party changed forever. If someone of the fortitude of Ian Paisley could be told what to do by the rank and file of his party, clearly no future leader would be safe from the same fate.

The 2011 Assembly Elections were something of an enigma in that Peter Robinson who had lost his own seat in Westminster the previous year somehow managed to lead the party to their most successful election ever. However when the NAMA scandal broke – whilst no evidence of any wrongdoing had been found towards the former leader – again as 2016 elections loomed the dreaded words electoral liability started to ring again, and given his health difficulties Mr Robinson was able to make an orderly exit which avoided a further inglorious ousting of a DUP leader.

Whilst there are several political fingerprints on the RHI scandal, the current DUP leader has seriously misjudged the public anger about it.

When one of her own party members broke rank to express their concern about the scheme, rather than approach the issues raised with a listening ear the default position was to attack the personal integrity of the individual raising the concerns.

In any other context, Jonathan Bell MLA would be called a whistleblower. Upon witnessing the way in which he was treated by the leadership of the party, I do not see how any member of the public who sees something going wrong in the civil service would feel inspired to raise issues with a DUP run department, after witnessing how their own people are treated.

A knee jerk reaction by the party leader to respond to the comments of a colleague publicly without knowing what he had said gave an appearance of poor judgment and lack of maturity.

If there were aspects of Mr Bell’s story open to challenge then by all means robustly challenge those points. However to make the defence deeply personal was clearly unwise.

Furthermore, to brand some critics as ‘misogynist’ shows little learning from the previous mistakes as yet again it is showing that rather than facing critics on the level of their political arguments yet again it descends to the personal.

Having witnessed politics from the inside, there is no question that at times it stinks of an alpha male environment. However, despite this Arlene Forster has been able to ascend the ranks to lead the largest political party in Northern Ireland and by virtue be appointed as First Minister, something which surely is testament to the fact that she is very well equipped to deal with this culture.

Of course in a role of public leadership one’s actions are at times going to be under intense scrutiny and when it comes to this no group of people should be off limits – regardless of their gender, religion or ethnicity.

Was the DUP ‘misogynist’ for criticising the late Mo Mowlam in how she handled the Belfast Agreement negotiations? Of course not. Rather, the criticism was of the policy, not the person.

Likewise, was the whole unionist community ‘misogynist’ for challenging the late Baroness Thatcher for her involvement in The Anglo-Irish Agreement, again I think most sensible people could draw the distinction between the criticism of Mrs Thatcher’s approach to this matter and her gender. Whilst much more benign, why should this issue be any different?

So is this the beginning of the end for Arlene Foster? In her favour the election cycle has now slowed down a little giving her reason to hope that the fire will have all but gone out before another election. Furthermore, even if she was to step down there is no obvious replacement for her and the disciplinarian culture of the party now makes it very difficult for anyone within to openly show interest towards leadership succession.

However, Mrs Foster cannot depend on this alone. After all, it took five decades for the late Ian Paisley to be branded within his own party as a liability and for Peter Robinson almost ten years. Mrs Foster had just about reached her first year as party leader before the cracks started to appear, something unprecedented in the history of the DUP.

Internally this has not gone unnoticed, and whilst the view in public is that ‘Arlene’s team’ are as loyal and happy as ever, the reality in private is something very different.

Back in the real world, the public yearn for strong political leadership that is held by people who stand by their principles when they believe them to be right and deal with their mistakes in an honest and contrite way when things go wrong.

Humility in unionism sadly seems to be in short supply at the moment and it is largely for this reason that the drama of the RHI scheme has been allowed to become a crisis.

Has it now escalated to the point that the words electoral liability for a third time echo the halls of DUP offices? Without doubt they do – I have heard it with my own ears.

Dr Paisley was relieved of his duties two years before a Westminster election and three years before an Assembly election. Therefore, to a now deeply damaged Arlene Foster the prospect of no imminent elections to lose is no guarantee that her credibility with the public – and more importantly within her own party – can weather this storm.

Unfortunately no DUP leader present or future can cry foul when their own members conspire against them in order to protect their own political positions, as post-2008 this is the type of party senior elected members have chosen to create.

The Old Testament says ‘For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind...’ and the longer an unapologetic leader beds in, the more likely they are to be privately isolated within their own party and faced with a choice to either step aside or else be pushed aside.

There are too many marginal DUP seats to face any election with a scandal such as this looming over the head of the leader. At Westminster, East Belfast will yet again be a very tight race, as will North Belfast and Upper Bann.

Furthermore, aspirations for the return of South Antrim and taking South Belfast will be top of the party’s electoral agenda. In 2016, the Assembly elections were not the landslide that the party tried to portray with several constituencies under clear pressure, with even DUP heartlands in which no candidate reached a quota. So in that context, does a party obsessed with winning elections want to move forward with a leader who appears incapable of facing up to their mistakes and who attacks on a personal level their critics even if they are members of their own party?

I think the answer to that question is fairly obvious and therefore believe it is highly unlikely that 2020 Westminster elections will be fought under the existing DUP leadership.

The theatrics of a temporary step aside are largely down to party politics and of course no DUP leader will want to be seen to act at the behest of Sinn Fein. However the much more significant story will be the storm that is quietly brewing within the DUP itself which Mrs Foster will be powerless in the long term to do anything about.

David McIlveen was DUP MLA for North Antrim from 2011-2016.