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Unionism Needs to Choose what it Stands For Post-Brexit

Mike Buckley assesses what impact the resignation of Arlene Foster as Northern Ireland’s First Minister will have on its relationship with the rest of the UK

Nigel Dodds, Boris Johnson and Arlene Foster during a DUP Annual Conference in Belfast. Photo: PA Images

Unionism Needs to Choose what it Stands For Post-Brexit

Mike Buckley assesses what impact the resignation of Arlene Foster as Northern Ireland’s First Minister will have on its relationship with the rest of the UK

Arlene Foster’s resignation this week as Democratic Unionist Party Leader and First Minister marks a dramatic change in the politics of Northern Ireland. 

Foster has been a key figure in the DUP for decades. As a young girl she witnessed an attempt by the IRA to kill her Royal Ulster Constabulary Reservist father. Later, in her teens, she was on a school bus which was bombed. She was “steeped in” Unionist politics, her determination taking her to the leadership despite the widespread misogyny she alluded to in her resignation speech. 

Her decision to quit the DUP once she departs frontline politics is therefore a surprise. Sources close to her said that she thinks the DUP is no longer the party she joined and that it is moving in a different direction.

Foster’s leadership will not be remembered for political bravery or serious attempts to end division and bring different sides to the table. She will be best remembered for her disastrous decision to reject Theresa May’s Brexit deal, which would have removed any need for land or sea borders by keeping the whole of the UK within European regulations for trade in goods.

Foster hoped that this would lead to a new land border and the demise of the Good Friday Agreement, says Daniel Holder, deputy director of committee on the Administration of Justice. She prioritised a hard Brexit over the needs of Northern Ireland, according to Owen Reidy, assistant general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). 

Her miscalculation allowed Boris Johnson to betray her, with the sea border and Northern Ireland Protocol the result. Views on the Protocol – like Brexit itself – are highly polarised: 44% are against, with 43% in favour.

Foster initially took a pragmatic view, arguing that the Protocol must be made to work, until a February poll for the Belfast Telegraph gave the DUP its lowest poll rating for two decades, losing votes to both the moderate Alliance Party and hardline Traditional Unionist Voice. 

Foster shifted her position to reject the Protocol, committing to remove it entirely despite offering no viable alternative. The Protocol has become another proxy for identity, says Reidy, with republicans supporting its full implementation while unionists promise its removal. 

There are parallels, says Reidy, between May’s premiership and Foster’s. Both were weakened early in their leadership – May by the 2017 General Election, Foster by the ‘cash for ash’ scandal. Like May’s, Foster’s resignation speech paints a picture of a different, more courageous leader than she was able to be in practice. 

“I have sought to lead the Party and Northern Ireland away from division and towards a better path,” she said. “There are people in Northern Ireland with a British identity, others are Irish, others are Northern Irish, others are a mixture of all three and some are new and emerging.

“We must all learn to be generous to each other, live together and share this wonderful country. The future of unionism and Northern Ireland will not be found in division, it will only be found in sharing this place we all are privileged to call home.”

The prevailing narrative is that Foster was deemed too liberal and consensual by more extreme members of the DUP, but the reality is more complicated. The DUP’s internal splits, says Irish Times’ Newton Emerson, go far deeper than an argument over whether to ban gay conversion therapy – the supposed trigger for Foster’s removal. 

Emerson points to the leak of minutes from a March meeting of the DUP’s South Antrim constituency association which “revealed a party in despair, with elected representatives at all levels calling for ‘drastic change’”. 

But, far from a grassroots eager for more hardline positions, those present wanted Foster to silence outspoken Brexiters such as MP Sammy Wilson and Stormont minister Edwin Poots and to pass Irish language legislation promised in last year’s deal to restore devolution – moves which would represent a shift to more consensual politics. 

The discrepancy, says Emerson, between Foster’s ousting over a supposed liberal decision to abstain on gay conversion therapy and the South Antrim leak shows a “profoundly conflicted party”. Foster, he believes, may have been attempting to accept new political and cultural realities. 

Politically, she must have known that the Protocol, for all its faults, is here to stay, hence her agreement to meet with the Irish Government to discuss its implementation. 

Public opinion has shifted on cultural issues. One former DUP insider said that it was “disastrous” that a debate on gay conversion had proved the “final straw” for Foster’s leadership, but predicted that “some of the issues used to remove Arlene will fade into irrelevance once the party works out who it wants to take things on from here”.

Her likely successor is Edwin Poots, widely seen as a traditionalist. His accession would, believes Emerson, make it difficult for the DUP to hold on to its coalition of voters. 

The most serious question raised by Foster’s departure, he argues, is not who will replace her but whether Northern Ireland’s political structures can cope with a fundamental realignment of the party system. The centrist Alliance could take second place, making Stormont’s power-sharing arrangements redundant. Sinn Féin could take first place and erroneously claim a mandate for a border poll.

Emerson believes that most within the DUP realise the pragmatic choice would be to take the hit for setbacks over the Protocol and cultural issues and learn to sell them as benefits for their communities and Northern Ireland as a whole, as Foster was attempting to do until January. But that they “cannot bring themselves to do it”.

Beneath all else lies fear of a united Ireland and a belief that Brexit and the Protocol have only made that outcome more likely. Unionists’ refusal to discuss the possibility of a united Ireland only weakens their hand, believes the Belfast Telegraph’s Malachi O’Docherty. If they discussed alternative forms of constitutional change there would be “advantages to be gained”, given the share of the vote they would command in a new state. But those advantages would be viewed by unionists as the terms of their surrender. 

In the short-term, politicians on all sides are keen to avoid instability. Sinn Fein, the Alliance and other parties are keen to avoid any discussion of an early election. Some fear that the new DUP leader will seek to collapse Stormont as Sinn Fein did in 2017, even though this would simply restore direct rule, leaving the Protocol in place and in Boris Johnson in control. 

Whoever replaces Foster, the DUP and unionism more broadly needs to decide what it stands for post-Brexit.

Those likely to succeed Foster want a more confrontational approach over the Protocol and the Union, believes the Alliance’s Stephen Farry, but they are hampered by their lack of an alternative and widespread understanding that they were complicit in the Brexit outcome. 

Farry believes that the DUP are likely to lose support whoever replaces Foster. “They have no strategy,” he says, “it’s all short-term and tactical.”

Emerson agrees, but argues that unionists should not fear if the DUP does lose influence. They have been “a disaster for the Union,” he says, “agitating against every compromise until [they] took top spot on [their] own terms.”

The DUP could choose a different path. Ironically, Foster may have articulated the best future for unionism in her resignation speech – a unionism that recognises that the “future of unionism and Northern Ireland will not be found in division, it will only be found in sharing this place we all are privileged to call home”. 

Instead, it seems likely that her successor will repeat her mistakes, entrenching division and raising false hopes that the Protocol can be removed. Northern Ireland’s other parties, as well as governments in London, Dublin and Brussels, need to do all they can to ensure peace and stability in challenging times. 

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