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Arlene Foster's dramatic change in fortunes

All political careers have their ups and downs but Arlene Foster's stands out as a textbook case of a leader achieving stunning success then throwing it away in a matter of months.

It is a dramatic change in fortunes that she may well be reflecting on as she joins other politicians in a joyless bid to rebuild what she lost - a devolved administration in which she was first minister, with a partner in government determined to make the structures work.

In May last year, Arlene Foster was in a seemingly unassailable position.

Despite being a woman from an Ulster Unionist and Church of Ireland background, she enjoyed a smooth transition to the top job in the DUP, which had been dominated by fundamentalist Free Presbyterians.

It was a remarkable rise by a politician viewed as a capable and astute minister.

Her position as the leader of unionism was underlined by the assembly election in May last year which saw her party hold 38 seats - ten more than Sinn Féin - a strong performance that was attributed to the popularity of the Fermanagh woman who was firmly at the centre of the DUP campaign.

So convincing was her victory that commentators were predicting she could have stayed at the pinnacle of politics in Northern Ireland for many years to come.

Furthermore, the Fresh Start Agreement seemed to cement Sinn Féin deeper into the process, with both parties apparently committed to making devolution work.

But within weeks, the cracks began to show.

Martin McGuinness was determined to engage in gestures of reconciliation but the DUP leader seemed reluctant to reciprocate.

Brexit was also a problem for the power-sharing partners who were on opposite sides of the debate. Although initial efforts were made to present some form of agreed approach, the deputy first minister had clear concerns.

Then came the controversy over funding for Charter NI which was headed by the UDA-linked Dee Stitt. Mr McGuinness said he should consider his position, the first minister did not back his view.

There were other issues involving DUP minister Paul Givan, whose actions in lighting an Eleventh Night bonfire, launching an apparently one-sided funding programme for community halls and then cutting an Irish language bursary, added to growing disquiet among republicans and nationalists.

Meanwhile, in the background was the deepening Renewable Heat Incentive crisis which Arlene Foster managed to completely mishandle.

After that it all unravelled fairly quickly, with Stormont collapsing and a disastrous election resulting in the loss of a unionist majority.

Today Arlene Foster is a greatly diminished figure.

Could it all have ended differently? Perhaps, if Mrs Foster had shown greater generosity of spirit towards her partners in government or displayed more of her warmer side in public.

It is a classic case of hubris in a drama that has still to reach its conclusion.

Whether Mrs Foster can recover her authority remains to be seen but the political lessons are painfully clear.

 

 

 

 

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