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.