Northern Ireland

The factors that led to Arlene Foster's downfall

As Arlene Foster prepares to bow out of politics Political Correspondent John Manley assesses her time in office and the factors that led to her downfall.

Arlene Foster lost control of the DUP. Picture by Ronan McGrade/Pacemaker Press
Arlene Foster lost control of the DUP. Picture by Ronan McGrade/Pacemaker Press Arlene Foster lost control of the DUP. Picture by Ronan McGrade/Pacemaker Press

FEW people don’t have an opinion on Arlene Foster, a Marmite character who like Margaret Thatcher excelled in a male-dominated world but was never regarded as a feminist. The departing first minister will like that comparison.

Both Thatcher and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth are her touchstones, figures historically met with varying degrees of disdain by republicans and nationalists.

She wears her opinions on her sleeve, rubs people up the wrong way in the process, has rarely been contrite and has a reputation for being short-tempered.

Fatally injured by RHI a year into her tenure as first minister and disliked by nationalism even more for the infamous “crocodile” remark, the former DUP leader was never able to fulfil her promise – or was it all just hype?

In the time since Edwin Poots took the leadership from her in a “brutal” manner, there has been a degree of revisionism already around Arlene Foster’s contribution to politics. Was she a missed opportunity or somebody who was destined to leave unionism in a much worse state than when she became its figurehead?

Outside events conspired against her, internal misogyny undermined her, while a section of society demonised her, but the former DUP leader must surely take some responsibility for her own fate.

South Down MLA Colin McGrath is chair of Stormont’s executive office committee and for the past 17 months has been responsible for scrutinising the first minister’s role.

He describes Mrs Foster as “something of an enigma”.

“She could be very much at ease in your company, friendly and pleasant in person, and then in a meeting ignore you for most of it and then take a swipe at you or your position in a dismissive manner,” the SDLP representative told The Irish News.

“On the floor of the assembly if she was asked a question she wasn’t comfortable with, she could answer without once looking at you – this was not lost on the public.”

He notes how her tendency to appear “disinterested” when answering other MLAs’ questions has been highlighted on social media.

“Taken in the round with some of her other dismissive and unflattering remarks she was seen in the nationalist community as simply not likeable,” Mr McGrath said.

“To illustrate that, I found that Arlene had a tendency to answer a question with a perfectly reasonable and a fair answer, but inevitably couldn’t hold back and added the DUP rhetoric that all of a sudden became the headline and the talking point.”

He does, however, believe she was “treated badly by her party” and notes how the public rarely sees the “human side of their politicians”.

Historian Brian Feeney says the recasting of Mrs Foster as a liberal moderniser who couldn't bring her party with her is inaccurate.

“This idea that the DUP is no longer the party she joined is nonsense – the party she joined 18 years ago was homophobic, misogynist, backward and it’s ludicrous to say otherwise," he said.

“Obviously she’s trying to polish her legacy and reinterpret what she did but if you look at record on RHI and confronting dissent and ill-discipline in her party for instance, then she was far from a success.”

The Irish News columnist points to the late Martin McGuinness’s final interviews where he highlighted how his invitation for the two leaders to attend both Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland games at the 2016 European Championships was rejected by the then DUP leader.

“He was making the point that there was no reciprocation and no effort to reach out to nationalists,” he said.

Mr Feeney believes Mrs Foster’s downfall was her failure to step aside at the height of outcry over RHI. She had been offered a cooling off space by Mr McGuinness, similar to that Peter Robinson had taken during his family difficulties, but refused, forcing the collapse of Stormont and a public inquiry that subsequently raked over her party’s inner workings.

Former DUP special adviser Tim Cairns also points to that crucial juncture in January 2017 when Mrs Foster was offered the chance to quell growing disquiet around RHI but instead chose to dig her heels in.

Up to that point he argues that she was in control and that her brand was in the ascendancy.

“Initially, it was like the old Paisley days in that Arlene was the DUP and the DUP was Arlene, but that quickly unraveled – she chose to walk through door A rather than door B and set in motion a series of events that did not play out well,” he said.

“She could have been leader of unionism for another decade at least and afforded the same regard as Peter Robinson and David Trimble but after that episode she lost control of the party and the rot set in.”

There is an acceptance among commentators, however, that once the RHI inquiry and subsequent report was out of the way, Mrs Foster was able to focus on her role as first minister, and performed commendably during the pandemic.