by Frank Schnittger
Thu Apr 29th, 2021 at 01:49:02 PM EST
Such has been the DUP's reputation for incompetence under leader Arlene Foster that many might make the mistake of seeing her departure as a positive development. However what finally broke the back of her support within the party is not the many scandals under her tenure - the collapse of Northern Ireland's power sharing executive in 2017, the loss of the unionist majority at Stormont, or the intense scrutiny of a judicial inquiry into her stewardship of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme. It was her decision to abstain rather than vote against a Stormont motion condemning "gay conversion" therapies that ensured her demise.
It must be remembered that the DUP's founder, Ian Paisley, founded his own "Free Presbyterian Church" because mainstream Presbyterianism had become too liberal for his tastes. Arlene Foster's Anglican church affiliation had always been regarded with suspicion by the few hundred active grass roots members who make up the party's power base.
However, there can be little doubt that her support for the N. Ireland Protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement until last January also contributed to her demise. Northern Ireland's failure to leave the EU's Single Market and Custom's Union along with the rest of the UK thus creating a customs border "down the Irish Sea" was her original sin.
It didn't help that she had previously torpedoed Theresa May's proposed Brexit deal that required no such border. Politically literate unionists realize it was Boris Johnson who ultimately betrayed them, but there has to be scapegoat to take away their complicity and shame at their ensuing defeat. The rioters in the street have been told Sinn Féin are winning, so something had to be seen be done to wrest back control from the paramilitaries.
As unionist commentator Newton Emerson notes (Subscriber only):
Yet the collapse of Foster's leadership, triggered this week by letters from half the DUP's constituency associations, relates to her failing to vote against a ban on gay conversion therapy and resuming meetings with the Irish Government, despite pledging to boycott them over the Northern Ireland protocol.
The contrast between the leak and the letters reveals a profoundly conflicted party.
There is no simple split between hardliners and pragmatists or conservatives and relative liberals. The DUP is overwhelmingly conservative and will now almost certainly lurch to the right. But everyone in it is painfully aware this will paint them further into a corner. Most realise the pragmatic choice is to take the hit for setbacks and `sell' them, as Foster tried to do with the protocol as recently as January. They just cannot bring themselves to do it.
The response from some is to hack the party down to its Paisleyite roots. Four letters are in circulation calling for Foster to go. The letter from DUP councillors demands a return to "Christian values" and "Ulster conservatism" and also calls for the heads of deputy leader and chief Brexiteer Nigel Dodds, plus chief executive Timothy Johnson and director of communications John Robinson.
The lack of any obvious successor to Foster has kept her in office for years. By initiating the DUP's first ever open leadership contest, a majority of its elected representatives have desperately decided to let the chips fall where they may.
But the real problem for the DUP is that recent polls have shown their voters drifting to the more centrist Alliance Party and the even more hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice party. Either development could result in the DUP losing the First Minister role to Sinn Féin and possibly even their leading role in the power sharing executive. That would be end of the world as far as many unionists are concerned.
Assembly elections are not due until May 2022, and a lot can happen between this and then. It is not clear whether Arlene Foster's departure will result in even more polarisation in N. Ireland, or a defeat of the extremists. The tectonic plates may be shifting, but we can expect quite a few earthquakes yet.
Jeffrey Donaldson, current leader of DUP MPs in Westminster, is probably the most able potential successor. He is chiefly known for his early work with Enoch Powell of "Rivers of Blood" fame, and opposition to the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. He may be too pragmatic for some DUP members' tastes, however, and there is no shortage of troglodytes within the party. He may also not wish to give up his Westminster seat and leadership to become First Minister, so a split between those two roles is also a possibility.
Whatever happens, don't expect a figure of Nelson Mandela's or John Hume's stature to emerge. They don't make those any more.