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John Manley: The DUP is lurching dangerously from one populist cause to another to cover its countless missteps

Arlene Foster says she won't speak to Chief Constable Simon Byrne. Picture by Cate McCurry/PA Wire

IT’S increasingly difficult to get a handle on Arlene Foster these days. There’s a clear lack of consistency in her words and actions, alongside a growing tendency for expediency that has great potential to come back and bite her.

At the beginning of the year, graffiti appeared in loyalist areas criticising the DUP leader over the imposition of the Irish Sea border. It came a matter of weeks after she’d appeared to accept the reality of the protocol, albeit reluctantly.

Criticism from within her own ranks and from other unionist parties, coupled with an opinion poll that forecast heavy losses for the DUP, saw the first minister shift her stance on the protocol from one of pragmatic compliance to outright opposition.

It was a gradual though very public U-turn that the DUP leader sought to put behind her as quickly as possible by being vocal in highlighting the apparent drawbacks of the Irish Sea border, which included some empty shelves in selected supermarkets and a temporary phytosanitary related ban on soil being imported from Britain.

The DUP also weighed in behind a court challenge to the protocol being led by TUV leader Jim Allister, former Labour MP Baroness Kate Hoey and Ben Habib.

The Irish Sea border remains in place, however, and the five-point plan with which the DUP sought to undermine it has proved completely ineffectual. Complaints from businesses about red tape and delays have all but evaporated, while the only shortages in the shops were down to people buying too many Easter eggs.

It was rather convenient therefore that the Public Prosecution Service’s decision on the Bobby Storey funeral Covid breaches arrived at a time when opposition to the protocol appeared to be losing momentum.

But rather than focus their grievance on Sinn Féin, Mrs Foster and her colleagues singled out Chief Constable Simon Byrne for criticism and called for his resignation.

The apparent thinking behind this tactic was that she could claim his head as a victory and the controversy could be put to bed without upsetting Stormont’s uncomfortable equilibrium. It’s what’s known in political parlance as a ‘deadcatting’, whereby an issue is brought to the fore in order to divert attention from something more damaging.

Mr Byrne’s stubbornness and a justifiable sense that the chief constable is being scapegoated have turned what began as political sideshow into the main attraction and put Mrs Foster in a bind that she will struggle to untangle herself from.

Her party’s response to loyalist street violence over recent nights has been less than decisive and in refusing to speak to the chief constable while his officers are coming under attack looks at best churlish and at worst irresponsible.

The DUP has adopted this stance while defending meeting the Loyalist Communities Council, a body that purports to represent loyalism but has been conspicuously silent over recent days.

All this only serves to reinforce the widespread view that unionism is confused and directionless, lurching dangerously from one populist cause to another without consideration for the longer term ramifications.

There’s no sign yet that warnings about the consequences of more DUP short-termism are being heeded and with each attempt to deflect criticism, the party digs itself deeper into a hole.

Regrettably, with an assembly election looming next year, the opportunity to adopt a more sensible, moderate approach to the current situation has passed.

Expect more expediency and deadcatting between now and next May.

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