Arlene Foster Will Never Die But Your Regulatory Alignment Will

Following yesterday’s collapse of talks over a suitable border arrangement, I’m seeing the usual flood of outrage at the UK and Brexit being held hostage by a small group of Northern Irish bigots.  There is still, however, precious little consideration by the UK polity of more recent underlying political pressures shaping Arlene Foster’s position.

At the start of the year, Foster was faced with serious questions regarding her role in OK’ing a scheme which led to widespread waste of government funds, the Renewable Heat Incentive. Faced with a scheme involving alleged massive corruption and Foster’s continued intransigence over an Irish Language Act for Northern Ireland, her deputy minister, Martin McGuinness, pulled the plug on power sharing.

The resulting Assembly elections were a thing to behold.  Unionists lost their majority in the Assembly for the first time ever.  The non-sectarian Alliance party continued to build a head of steam under their leader Naomi Long, pushing for better standards of governance and opposing corruption.  Although Sinn Féin and the DUP consolidated their bases, there were worrying signs of movement for Unionism – transfers from the UUP were going to the SDLP, and on RTE the next day, I heard a vocal Unionist describing himself as an ‘Orange Crocodile’ (Foster’s favoured characterisation of Irish speakers) and backing the Irish Language Act.

It felt like a seismic shift.  Foster was on the back foot, potentially having to deal with Sinn Féin and facing a hostile assembly that would pose hard questions regarding her role in the RHI. Yes, the DUP had stayed strong, but the sands of Unionism were shifting in unpredictable ways.  All this against the backdrop of the DUP’s hard Brexit, which was not going to sit well with its rural constituency (a constituency, incidentally, that Foster herself relies on).

Theresa May’s ill-judged election saved Foster from an awkward situation.  Now she didn’t have to deal with the compromise involved in a power-sharing executive and questions of her leadership.  Although the money is undoubtedly important, not many have commented on the other key aspect of the confidence and supply arrangement: in Westminster, the DUP are the only voice speaking for Northern Ireland. The general election cost the SDLP their seats.  Labour and the LibDems have been typically quiet on the North. The SNP are understandably focused on Scotland.  Furthermore, with power-sharing talks stalled, we now have de facto direct rule: in November, the Secretary for Northern Ireland imposed a budget.

This is the best of all worlds for Foster – she has leverage on the UK Government, the DUP is the only Northern Irish voice in the legislature, and she is not answerable to the Assembly or a power-sharing partner. Crucially, she is not exposed to the pressure of constituency politics that comes with the single-transferable vote system of the Northern Irish Assembly.  Her MPs are safe in their first-past-the post seats.  She remains in power, and her party halt the shrinking of Unionist influence evident in the Assembly elections.

Seen in this light, Ireland’s demands pose an existential threat to Foster and the DUP.  But so long as she can reject Northern Ireland being treated differently, she has power over Theresa May, because May is also under pressure from the hard-Brexiteers. So long as the UK government is distracted with Brexit and has the DUP support, they have no incentive to focus on restoring power-sharing at Stormont.

Whilst Foster has played a weak hand well and grabbed her opportunities, May has squandered her chances. Now her only threat against the DUP is to call a general election, and given the outcome last time she tried the tactic, there is no chance she can convincingly make that threat. Yesterday underlined this.  It took only one discussion with Foster for May to back down, further weakening the UKs negotiating position and credibility.

In these circumstances, Foster has no incentive to back down or allow for any kind of wiggle room.  Her majority in the North is non-existent, and should the Assembly return, she will surely face an investigation.  You can ignore RHI for a while, but south of the border, former Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan and former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald are a reminder to Foster that if she gives an inch, the scandal will catch up she may well lose her position as leader of the DUP.

Today, one faint glimmer of hope emerged – DUP MLAs (Member of Legislative Assembly) retweeted and gave support to Ruth Davidson’s plan for limited regulatory alignment on certain products applied throughout the UK.  Maybe Assembly DUP members want to see a more conciliatory attitude taken to the border.  They are, after all, likely to be feeling the heat from constituents who voted them in, only to see them not take their seats in the Assembly. But Westminster DUP has stayed strong behind Foster, and Robert Peston reported that Foster had spoken on the phone with Ruth Davidson as well, so Ruth and Arlene are clearly on the same wavelength.

I don’t see Foster backing down.

If she does, she is lost and the DUP’s slow decline continues. Better to have the whip hand over the Tories and push the hard Brexit.   Indeed, this was born out by her conversation today with RTE’s Northern Ireland Editor, Tommy Gorman.  She made clear that talks over the Border, trade and regulations, should be moved to the second stage of negotiations.  Not a position that Ireland would agree with, as well she knows.  The only natural outcome of that position is no deal. Given the pressures at play and May’s weakness, I don’t see how it will be avoided.



Comments (13)

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  1. Ann Rayner says:

    Thank you for a clear explanation of the Northern Ireland political situation. I had been puzzled as to why Arlene Foster and the DUP were not challenged on their position on Brexit given that Northern Ireland voted Remain with a convincing majority.

    However, it now looks as if we are all to suffer a hard Brexit at the hands of some Tories who want this for their own advancement and against the wishes of Northern Ireland, Scotland, the City of London, plus Gibraltar. They will be aided in this by the DUP who are going against the expressed wishes of the people of Northern Ireland.

    What a mess, and completely unnecessary. I just hope Scotland can extricate itself before the whole thing blows up but I am not confident.

  2. Jamsie says:

    I think you have nailed this on the head.
    The adjustment in position on any agreement relating to the border will need to come from the ROI and the EU otherwise the only outcome is no deal.
    This situation is obviously adverse to the UK but much more so to both the EU and the ROI.
    It is a no win situation for all and really needs to be put on the back burner until other more pressing issues can be agreed.
    In terms of her involvement in wasting public money then I think you can tar most politicians in every country across the world with that.
    Take our own SNP ministers and the prolific waste of money in the police and fire service changes, the software failures, the legal challenges, the named person act and the baby boxes.
    Not to mention massive cost to the public pursuing energy strategies which enrich the land owning gentry whose assets are registered off shore.

    1. Julian Smith says:

      Love the imagery. ” . . . nailed this on the head” Not sure whose head though.

  3. Graeme McCormick says:

    She can’t play that hand for ever. Once the hard border is a reality the physical power of 50,000 people north and south of the Border approaching the Border can drive a coach and horses through any customs or other physical barriers or queues. Any attempt to thwart the free flow of goods and people will force a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland.

  4. JimR says:

    If only Sinn Fein would take their seats in Westminster. They have the opportunity to really shake that place up.

    1. ben madigan says:

      Jim R – I really think we need to nail this wish? desire? hope? of yours (expressed by many other people too) that Sinn Fein take its seats in Westminster

      1) Even if they were to, their numbers would make no practical difference, given the distribution of seats in Westminster at present
      2) SF are a party that wants Britain out of Ireland. By that very same token, they have no desire whatsoever to get involved in, or influence, British politics. SF is an Irish party. It is the only political party that is active on both sides of the border.
      3) SF is a Republican party. They do not want to take an oath to a monarch, as Westminster MPs must to take their seats.
      4) SF’s abstentionist policy is long standing. Its voters know what it is, what it means, accept it and vote for it. Why should their decisions be set aside by other people’s wishes/hopes/desires?
      5) To change SF’s abstentionist policy a motion would need to be proposed by its members at its Ard Fheis and that motion would have to be passed by all the delegates. I see no signs of that happening

      1. JimR says:

        1) For once there is a minority government which SF could help destabilize
        2) Martin McGuiness shook hands with Lizzie and didn’t disappear in a puff of smoke!
        3) As a Scottish Republican Socialist why shouldn’t I hope for support from SF as many of us supported them via UTOM?
        4) Long standing policies from the early 20th Century can be changed.
        5) Agree there seems no appetite to change, but a debate could at least be had.
        There are bound to be more counter arguments but I am sure you get my general drift. It’s time we worked together to win an independent Scotland and a united Ireland.

      2. JimR says:

        I did send a reply but it hasn’t been published?

        1. Willie says:

          Interesting that you say that you sent a reply JimR but that it hadn’t been published.

          There may be more of this than you think and I would hope that the Ed is not bring overly restrictive in what he allows to be published.

          Ensuring a free flow of interesting and stimulating comment is good, but one needs to be very careful when applying the censorship curtain.

          Of course bloggers too need to be mindful of what they seek to post.

          Not the easiest balance to always achieve as the Ed will I’m sure know.

          1. JimR says:

            Hi Willie, the good news is that my reply was published in full. I was just being a typical user, not giving enough time for it to appear. And I thought I would get more patient as I grow older. Nae chance! Sorry Ed!

    2. ben madigan says:

      @ Jim R and others who suggest/wish/hope ” If only Sinn Fein would take their seats in Westminster”

      Time to put this idea to rest

      1) Even if Sinn fein were to take up their seats at westminster, they would have no practical effect, given the present distribution of seats
      2) Sinn fein is an irish party that wants the british government out of ireland. By the very same token they have no desire to enter into,or influence, british government in Great britain
      3) Sinn fein is a republican party. They do not want to take an oath of allegiance to any Monarch, as all westminster MPs must do
      4) Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy is long-standing, known and accepted by its voters. whyshould their views be set aside by other people’s wishes/hopes / suggestions?
      5) Sinn fein’s abstentionist policy can only be set aside by a motion from its members that is passed during an Ard fheis. There is no sign at present of this happening within the near future

      1. JimR says:

        Ben, merely restating what you said before doesn’t address anything I put forward to you as to why I think SF could benefit, at least temporarily, for dropping the boycott.

  5. Josef Ó Luain says:

    Spot-on, Oisin Murphy Lawless.

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